MESOP Turkey Analysis: The Government’s “Trustee Coup” Takes Over Local Authorities

by Scott Lucas + Daniel Round writes for EA: 12 Sept 2016- On Sunday morning, Turkish authorities raided the offices of 24 municipalities in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast. Local representatives of Democratic Regions Party (DBP) were replaced with Government-appointed administrators.

The 24 DBP mayors were replaced for allegedly providing “assistance and support” to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Many of them had received more than 50% of the vote at the 2014 local elections.In addition, three mayors from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and one from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were dismissed for alleged connections to the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the Government holds responsible for the attempted military coup of July 15. Top AKP officials have long wanted a move against those within their own ranks who retained links to Gülen’s network after the relationship between the cleric and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broke down in 2013.

Of the 28 elected mayors removed from office, 12 have been arrested.

The decision to annul local democracy across cities such as Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Van sparked outrage, and there were clashes between protesters and police after offices were raided and Turkish flags unfurled. The Government says that the move to replace elected officials with trustees is necessary to root out the misappropriation of municipal resources for criminal purposes; however, it comes during an unprecedented purge that has shown Erdoğan is attempting to centralize state power and reassert its authority through coercion, using the July 15 coup attempt and recent PKK attacks as pretexts.

The DBP’s fraternal Parliamentary party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), released a statement saying that “usurping the public will” at the local level stems from the same anti-democratic mentality that produced the failed coup attempt. After the new administrators were ushered in, #KayyumDarbedir (“Trustee Coup”) trended on Twitter, with DBP/HDP supporters sharing pictures of the subsequent unrest and voicing their continuing frustrations with Erdoğan. With the main Turkish news channels mostly skipping over the details, the hashtag ensured attention to the controversy.

Although the Government claims that this is part of the wider fight against the PKK, it is hard to see how replacing popular elected officials will do anything other than ramp up hostilities and add to frustrations in the troubled southeast. The move will legitimize PKK claims that the Turkish state cannot be reformed and democratized, and that the legitimate aspirations of Kurds and other minorities cannot be achieved through the ballot-box. Furthermore, the group has said that it will now target the appointed trustees.

Already, the Government’s exclusion of the HDP from public events, the sacking of 11,000 teachers for alleged PKK ties, attacks against Kurdish citizens by Islamic State militants and Turkish nationalists, and bloody security operations in Sur, Cizre and elsewhere have seriously undermined the Government’s authority in the south-east. With increasing Turkish military participation in northern Syria as well, the ethnic, regional, and political faultlines that have for decades afflicted the country look set to grow deeper.

This is the third event in 2016 to be popularly referred to as a “coup” in Turkey. It follows not only the failed military coup in July but also the so-called “palace coup” of May, when President Erdoğan forced out Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu due to his reluctance to push with zeal for an executive Presidency. Three “coups” in one year is more than a misfortune or carelessness. It is an indication that Turkey’s democracy — which had shown some signs of advancing in the early 2000s — is now truly ailing.