Ankara Metropolitan municipality Crisis Desk (Credit: Ankara Metropolitan municipality)

Turkish government attempts to ban locally-organised aid efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic have intensified conflict between the state and the opposition-run municipal authorities.

Unemployment and inflation have both soared since Covid-19 arrived in Turkey in mid-March, prompting the state to launch a range of support programmes for vulnerable people. However, when some municipalities tried to create their own additional schemes, they found their way blocked. 

On March 31, the interior ministry instructed regional governors to prevent metropolitan municipalities from organising aid drives, and to seize the bank accounts and investigate those local authorities that tried to. Money seized has still not been returned to donors several months later, and its whereabouts is unclear.

“There is no point in being a state within the state,” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared, comparing municipalities collecting donations to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to the movement led by cleric Fethullah Gülen, which the state blames for the 2016 coup attempt. 

Süleyman Soylu, the interior minister, echoed the president’s position on 1 April, accusing local authorities collecting cash without permission of wanting to establish a “new government”.

Eskişehir Odunpazari soup kitchen (Credit: Eskişehir Odunpazari municipality)

The ban is not limited to cash donations. Local authorities in the city of Mersin, which is run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), were prevented from distributing bread to citizens. CHP-run soup kitchens in districts of the cities of Antalya and Eskişehir were closed down and a field hospital set up by the CHP-led municipal authority in Adana was shut by the provincial health department on the grounds that its sanitary conditions were “not suitable for providing healthcare”.

Eskişehir Odunpazari soup kitchen (Credit: Eskişehir Odunpazari municipality)

Haydar Demir, a CHP city councillor in Ankara, described these measures as an attempt to “discredit and defame” services provided by local authorities. 

“People don’t care where the aid comes from, and they are suffering from this situation,” Demir said, adding that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) had acted out of “jealousy”. 

He rejected the suggestion that the CHP was behaving like an alternative government. 

“Municipalities are part of the constitution and use powers given to them by the laws of the state,” he said. 

Local authorities run by the pro-Kurdish, multiculturalist HDP opposition party have also been under pressure. Government-allied media outlets described the HDP’s Sister Families campaign, which aimed to encourage better-off families to help those suffering economically as “aiding a terrorist organisation”. 

After Ayhan Bilgen, the HDP co-mayor of Kars in eastern Turkey, claimed that these attacks had government approval and that there were plans to remove his city from local political control, he received online death threats. 

The row over the coronavirus pandemic comes after several years of emergency measures in which HDP mayors have been removed from their posts and replaced by state-appointed trustees – a measure that the government claims is an essential part of its battle against Kurdish separatists. 

The HDP claims that its mayors’ programmes have delivered aid to more than 75,000 people in 57 cities across Turkey during the pandemic. 

According to Ayşen Uysal, a political scientist from Turkey who currently works in France, the government has reacted this way because it fears losing power and influence if budget control is delegated to opposition-controlled authorities. The message from the national government, said Uysal, was “only we can call the shots: you may be elected but since we are the state, it doesn’t matter”. 

This comes at a potentially difficult moment for Turkey’s governing AKP. Kemal Özkiraz, director of the Avrasya Research polling institute, told Inside Turkey that recent unreleased data suggested that the AKP’s governing coalition could lose its majority in a future election. 

At the same time, the main opposition coalition, led by the CHP, is also unable to command majority support. If this were to play out in a general election, it would make the HDP, currently polling around 12 per cent, an important power broker.

Some AKP-run municipalities have continued to organise local aid efforts despite the official ban, leading to public criticism that the government was applying a double standard. In the southern city of Gaziantep, the AKP-controlled Şahinbey municipality set up a call centre to “answer demand from citizens who are in need of aid”. 

According to Şahinbey mayor Mehmet Tahmazoğlu, this municipality delivered over 93,000 family aid packages. In Konya in central Turkey, the AKP mayor declared that water bills would be lowered to help families in financial trouble during the pandemic.

Opposition-run municipal authorities in some areas are also trying to continue their work.

Adana field hospital (Credit: Adana Metropolitan municipality)

“In Adana, the distribution of bread was officially prevented on the grounds that it was free,” said Serdar Seyhan, a CHP councillor in Adana. “We tried to deliver bread to citizens by selling at a very low price.” 

Seyhan told Inside Turkey that AKP officials last year threatened to cut funds to Adana if the CHP won control of the city in local elections. 

“Now, seeing that the propaganda didn’t work, they have become nervous,” he continued.

Recalling that winning control of municipal authorities had been an important step in the AKP’s journey to power, Seyhan said that the government might now be worried that the CHP was repeating the trick. Opposition parties made gains in last year’s local elections, amid discontent at Turkey’s economic downturn, and the CHP won several high-profile victories including the hotly-contested election for the mayor of Istanbul. 

Tarık Balyalı, a CHP councillor in Istanbul, told Inside Turkey that his municipality was continuing to provide food aid. He also blamed the ban on last year’s local election results, saying that the government’s reputation was suffering as a result of its stubbornness. 

“They are getting worse in the eyes of the public. Apparently the AKP still does not understand why it lost [Istanbul] last year.”

The pandemic has also created a budget crisis for municipal authorities, who are facing falling tax receipts. 

“All municipalities – cities and districts – are facing a very serious income shortage,” said Balyalı, who expects the Istanbul municipal authority to face a loss of 5.5 to 6 billion lira from its income for 2020, a fall of up to 25 per cent. 

But he expects voters to blame national government policies. 

“The pressure against CHP municipalities will backfire, because I believe that the public has seen and analysed the situation,” he said. “We continue to do our job.”