Locals in Diyarbakır protesting against custodian mayors last August (Credit: Firat Topal)
Locals in Diyarbakır protesting against custodian mayors last August (Credit: Firat Topal)

The Turkish government policy of taking control of dozens of municipal authorities run by the left-wing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and handing them over to state-appointed “custodians” looks set to continue.

The interventions began four years ago, justified as an anti-terrorism measure in the wake of the failed 2016 coup attempt. More recently, when the HDP won back many of these seats in last year’s local elections, the government promptly took them away again. Amid allegations of corruption, the policy is proving unpopular with both opposition voters and supporters of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party. 

After 2016, custodians were assigned to 96 of the 102 municipalities then held by the HDP. At the March 2019 local elections, the HDP won control of 65 municipalities. Now, 32 of these are being run by officials assigned either by regional governors or the interior ministry. 

Most of the removed HDP mayors have since been arrested or are under investigation for terrorism offences. Turkey’s interior ministry claims the suspects have links to the Kurdistan Workers Party’ (PKK), the armed Kurdish independence movement considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, as well as the EU and the US. 

Meanwhile, reports by Turkey’s Court of Accounts show that municipalities run by custodians since 2016 have seen spending and debt spiral. 

In 2019, Mehmet Zırığ was elected mayor of Cizre in south-eastern Turkey with 77 per cent of the vote, but is now under investigation for “promoting a terrorist organisation”. 

According to Zırıg, Erdoğan is sending a message to Kurds: “Either obey me or I take away your chance to exercise your will.” He said that he was placed under investigation for praising an HDP member who went on hunger strike in protest at the treatment in prison of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Police attacking protesters in Diyarbakır (Credit: Reso Rohani)

Cizre was assigned a custodian in 2016; since then, according to Zırıg, the municipality has accrued 220 million lira in debt. 

“They built a heliport for the military and installed police surveillance cameras in villages. That’s … not for the good of the public,” he said. While suspended from office, Zırığ and his party colleagues continue to campaign and meet with voters.

According to Yüksel Genç of the Political and Social Research Centre (SAMER), which conducts field research in Kurdish-majority cities, custodians do not have the support of those they govern. A survey carried out in November found that 81 per cent of people in municipalities where custodians had been assigned disapproved of them, a figure that includes people who voted for the AKP as well as HDP voters. 

“We’ve seen a large increase in disapproval ratings compared to the survey conducted after the 2016 custodian assignments,” said Genç, who added that there is growing disillusionment with the electoral system among Kurdish voters. 

Police attacking people protesting against custodian mayors in August last year. (Credit: Reso Rohani)

The custodian policy was enabled by a decree made during the state of emergency declared after the coup attempt of 2016. The government blames the coup on an armed organization linked to the fugitive Turkish cleric Fetullah Gülen, but the custodian policy has mainly targeted areas with large Kurdish populations. 

Cell Kaya, a political scientist at Ankara University, said that the policy indicates a broader “friend or foe” mindset on the part of the government. 

“The HDP is first among these foes because it has an agenda that’s completely against the authoritarianism and nationalism of the ruling class,” he said. As a result, Kaya continued, citizens who protest that their votes are being ignored are suppressed by the military, while expressions of support for HDP mayors are classed as treason or “aiding an enemy”. 

Nonetheless, Kaya believes the custodians policy is unsustainable. 

“A representative democracy that undermines itself is doomed to [either] vanish or be restored”, he said.

The HDP claims that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had declared his intention to remove mayors with links to “terrorist organisations” before the 2019 elections had even taken place. 

Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is also opposed to the policy. Its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu recently echoed the HDP in describing the removal of elected officials as a coup. 

Police attacking people protesting in Diyarbakır last August (Credit: Reso Rohani)

“This isn’t democracy. It’s an attempt to overthrow democracy and the power of people’s will”, he said. 

An CHP mayor in Urla in western Turkey was also removed last year, on suspicion of having contact with the Gülen network. 

Municipalities that were assigned custodians in 2016 have been dogged by claims of corruption and millions of liras of overspending; debts that their successors in 2019 have had to take on. 

In Diyarbakır, one of the largest cities in southeastern Turkey, the custodian mayor built himself a luxurious office in the municipal headquarters, footage of which was used by his opponents in campaigning for the 2019 elections. The victorious candidate, Selçuk Mızraklı, was removed from office only a few months later. 

In Mardin, close to the Syrian border, the custodian mayor left the municipality with a billion lira in debt, having spent lavish amounts on food and drink for visiting AKP dignitaries. It later emerged that he spent 164,550 lira in three months on coffee and nuts. And in the Wall district of Diyarbakır, a custodian mayor notorious for building a gold bath during his first period in charge was reassigned to the post in 2019. 

The government, meanwhile, is unapologetic about removing the mayors. 

“Just because they’re elected,” said the interior minister Süleyman Soylu when interviewed recently on CNN Türk, “it doesn’t mean they’re free to do any act of terror they want.”