Every night when we go to bed, we think of the possibility of arrest in the morning, says pro-Kurdish party mayor

Ayhan Bilgen, mayor of the eastern Turkish city of Kars, is perhaps the most prominent member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party still in office.

“Every night when we go to bed, we think of the possibility that we might be taken in the morning. We all carry the concern that it might happen at any moment,” said Ayhan Bilgen, mayor of the eastern Turkish city of Kars from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), speaking to The Washington Post.

“The targeting of municipalities held by the party is becoming a feature of Turkey’s politics, rather than an aberration. In 2016, the authorities also removed elected HDP mayors en masse,” the article, titled “Turkey’s crackdown on political opposition finds a favored target: Elected Kurdish mayors,” said.

All but 10 municipalities seized by government

The HDP’s mayoral candidates captured 65 Turkish municipalities in the local elections of March 2019. During a subsequent crackdown by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authorities have effectively taken over all but 10 of the municipalities, while detaining at least 20 mayors.

“To serve as a mayor from Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political party these days is to fear arrest at any moment and govern in circumstances that hover between stifling and absurd,” Bilgen, one of the few who has remained in office during the unrelenting government purge, said.

Pointing to Turkey’s clampdown on opposition parties, civil society groups and dissidents that intensified after a failed coup in 2016, the article said, “But the removal of so many elected mayors — representing the will of millions of voters — has been a singularly stark illustration of the dangers facing the country’s democracy,” citing human rights groups, analysts and members of the HDP.

As the mayors vanish, those who remain in office speak together frequently, sharing tips and black humor to get through their days, said Bilgen.

“Of course, we joke with one another, wondering whose turn is next,” he said. “There is constantly pressure on us.”

As a province-level mayor, Bilgen is perhaps the most prominent HDP mayor still in office.

He has written columns for several newspapers and served as a member of parliament as well as a spokesman for the HDP. He is not Kurdish but rather a member of the Turkmen ethnic minority, he said. In 2017, he spent more than six months in jail on charges of belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

“Right now, there are eight cases against me. And none of these are regarding the municipality. Meaning, none of these have to do with work I have done as a mayor. They are regarding a tweet I posted five years ago, or a press statement I partook in,” he said.

Before Bilgen and the other mayors were elected last year, Erdoğan had issued a warning to the HDP, suggesting its candidates would not be allowed to serve.

“If you send the resources given to municipalities by the state to Kandil or use them in terrorism, then immediately, instantly, without waiting, we will appoint our trustees again,” he said in February 2019, referring to the PKK’s headquarters in the mountains of Iraq.

Loss of Istanbul and Ankara municipalities most unnerving for Erdoğan

When the election was held the next month, it delivered stunning setbacks for Erdogan’s party, which lost mayoral contests in some of Turkey’s largest cities. Most unnerving for Erdoğan were the losses of Istanbul and Ankara to candidates from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the country’s largest opposition party.

By August the government had indicted three mayors from the HDP who had won landslide victories over candidates from Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The mayors of Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van were replaced with state officials.

Some of the newly elected HDP mayors — including Adnan Selçuk Mızraklı, the mayor of Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish Southeast region — had promised to investigate the financial dealings of ruling-party members who had previously held the posts.

By February 32 HDP mayors had been removed from office, according to a report by Human Rights Watch that month. The group, citing an examination of 18 court cases, said the mayors’ detentions relied on “vague and generalized allegations against the mayors by witnesses, some secret, and on details of their political activities and social media postings, which fail to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that would justify detention.”

Last week another HDP mayor lost her position, according to state media. Police on July 13 detained the mayor, Betül Yaşar, on charges that included membership in a terrorist organization, a reference to the PKK, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. By the next day, her office, in eastern Ağrı province, had been placed under the supervision of an acting mayor appointed by the central government.

The government’s pursuit of the pro-Kurdish mayors is largely tactical. The HDP has long been a political nuisance for Erdogan, able to peel away voters who had formed a part of his base, the article stated, citing analysts.

Commenting on the crackdown on the pro-Kurdish party, Gönül Tol, the director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said: “Erdogan’s anti-HDP rhetoric sharpened after he made an alliance with an ultranationalist party, but even that partnership had not stopped the president’s popularity from slipping. He’s in big trouble. He has nowhere else to turn.”

In Turkey’s big cities, the election and its aftermath highlighted the extent to which “mayors have become the real threat to Erdogan,” said Tol of the Middle East Institute. The main challengers came from the CHP, including some who have distinguished themselves with their response to the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

‘Kurdish young people don’t feel like they are part of Turkey anymore’

But the story in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority areas is different. There, the stillborn elections have reinforced feelings of marginalization. “The government’s replacement of elected HDP mayors with appointed trustees has fundamentally altered the nature of local government in this region at the expense of voters’ rights and interests,” Nicholas Danforth, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, wrote in a recent briefing about the election results.

Recent polls have indicated “that Kurdish young people feel more distant, and don’t feel like they are part of Turkey anymore,” Tol said. “Kurdish youth avoid talking about politics with Turkish friends.”

Bilgen fretted that the sense of estrangement made it harder for the party to compete for support with the militants.

“People who give their votes to the HDP, who are mostly Kurdish voters, who are constantly being pushed and being othered, don’t feel like they are part of the collective future of this country.”

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