Local government in Turkey has a two-headed structure: a centrally appointed governor with a plethora of responsibilities on the one hand and popularly elected municipal authorities on the other. This dualism dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, but in this blog I am not going to barge into historical details; rather I will discuss the current situation of the Kurdish municipalities that are now being seized one by one by Mr Erdogan, the Turkish President, and his political party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), particularly after an infamous coup attempt last July. An upcoming referendum on 16 April this year – which is considered a pivotal move for transforming the country’s democratic parliamentary system to a presidency and creating a powerful sultan-president – will be also taken into consideration.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, Mr Erdogan and his government started a brutal witch-hunt against all dissenters in Turkey, including liberals, leftists, seculars and followers of the Gulen Movement. Tens of thousands of public servants have been dismissed for allegedly being behind the coup and most of them arrested on not-so-clear charges. Their names have been publicised on the Turkish Official Gazette and almost everybody now treats them as terrorists or traitors. Companies that are deemed to be associated with the Gulen Movement have had their assets seized, been filled with appointed trustees and finally sold. Journalists have been jailed as their newspapers and TV stations have been closed down. The country is now in a constant state of emergency rule, in which everything is done with decrees streaming down from the presidential palace and where all kinds of illegalities committed by authorities are protected.
Municipal authorities in predominantly Kurdish towns and cities have their shares in these atrocities. After sending Kurdish deputies to jails, the government began to seize power in Kurdish local governments, particularly in the east and south-east of the country. Elected mayors have been replaced by appointed trustees, chosen from local governors in districts or provinces. However, removing mayors did not suffice, so they were jailed too.
Under the stretched state of emergency rule, with no visible and effective opposition remaining, Turkey is holding a referendum to turn its current political system into a presidency. This, unsurprisingly, will work best for the benefit of Mr Erdogan, who is trying to establish a de-facto sultanate. However, one of his referendum promises is to increase the number of greater municipal authorities by over 20, from the present 31. Considering that the country has 81 provinces, increasing the number of popularly elected local municipalities and enlarging their responsibilities across the provincial border is a bold move and may transform the local administration system and add more fuel to the discussion of devolution that has emerged since the 1980s.
The President’s referendum promises and his seizing of popularly elected municipal authorities in the country’s Kurdish regions represents a very problematic sphere in Turkish politics in terms of the empowerment of local governments. Increasing the numbers of democratically and locally elected mayors and devolving power to municipal authorities, as well as enlarging their territories and overlapping provincial borders is a powerful move in the case of strengthening local government reforms. However, only time will tell whether Mr Erdogan and his government are only merely tolerating those who he considers to be his political allies in local governments across Turkey. What we can say though is that this move will certainly bring more uncertainty to the country’s already troublesome local government system.
Saban Akca is a doctoral researcher in INLOGOV at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on leadership in public administration, and his doctoral thesis examines the leadership exercises of local-level district governors in Turkey.