Turkey’s Crackdown on Kurdish Mayors Could Backfire

The country’s offensive in northern Syria was preceded by the suppression of the Kurdish political movement at home.

Turkish riot police clash with demonstrators protesting Turkey's crackdown on Kurdish mayors, in Istanbul on Aug. 24.
Turkish riot police clash with demonstrators protesting Turkey's crackdown on Kurdish mayors in Istanbul on Aug. 24. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

In the run-up to Turkey’s ongoing operation against Kurdish nationalist forces in northern Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presided over a sweeping crackdown on Kurdish mayors in Turkey, justified by the same impetus: connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

In Turkey, support for the PKK, which Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist group, has long been grounds for dismissal or imprisonment. But what exactly constitutes support is subject to the state’s discretion, and the line is by no means fixed. Instead, it ebbs and flows, determined by developments in the ongoing conflict between the government and Kurdish separatists—or by the election cycle. Now, among members of the mainstream opposition, objections to these erratic policies, and the damage they have done to the country’s democracy, have begun to mount—for good reason. For the first time, politicians with no ties to Kurdish politics have begun to express fear that Erdogan might apply the same tactics more broadly, against anyone who opposed him. And pushing out popularly elected Kurdish politicians could backfire, making peace even harder to achieve.

The ousted mayors, all from the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast, belong to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, members of which often face repercussions over accusations of abetting PKK insurgents. They won office in March, in nationwide local elections. The same vote saw the Republican People’s Party, or CHP—the country’s main opposition party—win the mayoralty of Istanbul back from Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Ekrem Imamoglu, the new mayor, contested a controversial rerun but took office again in June with an even greater share of the vote.

Imamoglu and other opposition leaders have rallied around the Turkish army as it fights Kurdish nationalist forces in Syria after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, while the HDP has emerged, as it has during previous such cross-border operations, as a lone voice calling for peace. But once the guns fall silent, members of the opposition will likely return to questioning Ankara’s treatment of Kurdish politicians at home.

In August, Imamoglu, his position newly secured, paid a visit to Diyarbakir, in the heart of Turkey’s Kurdish region. He visited the grave of a slain Kurdish human rights lawyer. He stopped by a restaurant to grill liver, a local favorite. And he met with two of the Kurdish mayors elected to office the same as he had, only to be dismissed over claims they were too close to the PKK.

“It’s unacceptable to apply different rules, to separate some voters, political parties, and elected persons from others,” he said. “This is dangerous discrimination.” Imamoglu likely sees a risk that he and other CHP mayors could one day be branded terrorists in the same manner. In September, for instance, Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, warned that his department was watching Imamoglu’s ties with the HDP closely. “Do your job,” Soylu said. “If you are busy with other things besides doing your job, we will ruin you.”

Imamoglu is not the only opposition figure questioning the dismissal of the mayors and the state’s heavy-handed approach. Former President Abdullah Gul, a founder of the AKP, and former AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have weighed in to support the Kurdish mayors. “The most effective political fight against terrorism is not by eroding democratic representation but by entering the hearts of the nation and winning elections,” Davutoglu tweeted. Both Gul and Davutoglu have since parted from the AKP, marking a new unease with the ruling party’s policies.

Kurdish political leaders did not draw such widespread support even a few years ago. In 2016, for instance, opposition lawmakers from the CHP helped the ruling AKP pass legislation that lifted the immunity of fellow members of parliament accused of terrorist ties. That move paved the way for the dismissal and prosecution of dozens of HDP lawmakers, a campaign that has threatened to decimate the party altogether.

In fact, the March local elections were the only bright spot for the HDP, the third-largest party in Turkey, amid a string of setbacks. Thousands of rank-and-file members were put behind bars in 2018. On the eve of the elections, 93 municipalities—nearly all those controlled by the HDP—had been taken over by federally appointed caretakers. Accused, but not convicted, of aiding the PKK, elected HDP mayors were sacked by the Interior Ministry, which appointed civil servants in their place. Ankara was in the middle of a war with the PKK, the government claimed, and these mayors were on the wrong side.

Throughout the conflict, Kurdish political leaders have found themselves having to explain organic ties to the PKK. Take Nurettin Demirtas, the brother of detained HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas. After trying his hands at politics and instead finding a revolving door to prison, he left Turkey and joined the PKK’s leadership and now appears on Turkey’s most wanted list. “If, my brother, Nurettin Demirtas, is currently not beside his family, it is not our fault. It is because they tell us not to be engaged in politics here,” Demirtas said in 2015.

But just two years earlier, when the government was in peace talks with the PKK, it made use of Selahattin Demirtas as a key interlocutor. Turkish officials and Kurdish leaders including Demirtas shuttled between Imrali, the island in the Sea of Marmara where PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is imprisoned, and the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq to broker a cease-fire. Demirtas’s meetings with Ocalan are now being used as evidence against him, in cases that could keep him behind bars for more than a century.

Among the most controversial practices of which HDP politicians have been accused is attending the funerals of PKK members. These include bombers and gunmen implicated in attacks inside Turkey. They also include volunteers who crossed into Syria to join the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, with which Erdogan is currently at war following the U.S. withdrawal from the country’s north.

Ahmet Turk, a veteran Kurdish politician who has been elected to the Turkish parliament five times since 1973, also stands accused, among other crimes, of attending one such funeral. Turk was removed from his position as mayor of Mardin in 2016, only to be reelected to the same office in March, only to be dismissed again in August over alleged terrorist connections.

In 2016, he attended the funeral of a female Kurdish fighter killed in Syria in a battle against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. “There was no problem at the time of going to the funeral, but they started a case against me three years later,” he said. “Around 2,000 people attended the funeral of that woman, who was killed by ISIS, but they only start an investigation against Ahmet Turk.”

For the HDP, some of the dead deserve to be remembered as martyrs, and others should be seen as tragic casualties of a war that has claimed the lives of too many Kurds.

“We take our stance depending on the cultural and social realities in a region,” said Bedia Ozgokce Ertan, one of the recently dismissed mayors. “When someone is dead, nothing about them matters anymore. They are stripped of all the crimes they are accused of. … Instead of questioning why young people are dying before they are supposed to, we are being targeted.”

Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli, a surgeon and the elected mayor of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, was also sacked in the recent crackdown. In addition to being charged with attending a funeral, Mizrakli faces accusations that he treated PKK fighters during his 30-year career as a physician in the city. Yet they are just accusations—Ankara has not provided any details of when or how Mizrakli helped injured PKK fighters.

At the time they were elected, Mizrakli, Turk, and Ertan, between them, faced a total of 25 criminal cases for infractions including “making propaganda for a terrorist organization,” “praising an offense and offender,” “becoming a member of an armed terrorist organization,” and “forming and commanding an armed terrorist organization.” The charges stem from allegations that they attended funerals, held up portraits of Ocalan, or praised him in speeches.

None has been convicted, but the mere accusation was enough to remove them from office. A host of other noncriminal allegations has also been leveled over simple actions seen as indicating support for the PKK. Turk, for instance, is said to have ordered the removal of the small Turkish flag from the top right corner of the city hall website. Mizrakli is accused of renaming a street in Diyarbakir to commemorate a deceased medical doctor who was convicted of ties to the PKK.

For Turk, the new round of prosecuting Kurdish leaders is a familiar story, one that he says could spark a new generation to take up arms. “If the state were smart, it would try to win back the Kurds,” Turk said. Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria is yet another sign that Ankara is not able to tolerate a Kurdish nationalist movement.

That possibility of a new generation of Kurds taking up arms, and the dubious nature of the accusations against the HDP mayors, has even drawn worry from the AKP leadership.

Like Demirtas, Turk was employed by the state as a negotiator with the PKK during the peace process in 2013—a service that has not gone forgotten. “This person has nothing to do with terrorism,” Bulent Arinc of the AKP, who served as deputy prime minister during the last round of peace talks with the PKK, told reporters after the veteran Kurdish leader’s dismissal. “He is a person who wants peace.”

Umar Farooq is a journalist based in Istanbul. Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society. Twitter: @UmarFarooq_

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