Another test for the Council of Europe

Van under siege after removal the mayor, August 2019

This week the Council of Europe is full of representatives from municipalities and regional authorities, here for the twice-yearly Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. Among them are representatives from Turkey, who blithely criticise other local democracies without mentioning that in southeast Turkey/North Kurdistan local democracy has been all but abolished.

According to Turkey’s 2019 local elections, there should be 65 local authorities with mayors and councils from the pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but only six of these have been left in HDP hands. Six mayors were disqualified immediately after their elections on the grounds that they had been removed previously – even though their candidatures had been officially approved – and their positions were awarded to the runner-up candidates from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in defiance of the expressed preference of the electorate. The other 53 missing mayors have all been dismissed under terrorism legislation. Some are in prison, others in exile.

On the rare occasions when a mayor from another party has been removed, they have been replaced by another elected councillor. When HDP mayors are removed they are replaced by the local governor who is a government appointee, and the council is also closed down. The governor has complete control, like the representative of a colonial power. The first thing these governors do is close down the organisations established by the HDP mayor and council – especially the organisations established for women.

Even the six remaining HDP mayors are limited in what they can achieve as they rely on the state for their funding and the state does not want to support their plans. Their every action is followed by the state security services, who compile dossiers against them.

At the last session of the Congress, six months ago, Turkey’s attack on local democracy was discussed and discussed critically, but this did not lead to any action. The Council of Europe is meant to safeguard European democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, so Turkey’s behaviour puts them to the test. When Leyla Güven was arrested in 2009, when she was mayor of Viranşehir and also a Congress member, her detention was brought up every Congress so it could not be forgotten and Turkey’s attack on democracy could not be normalised. Turkey’s continued attacks on democracy need to continue to be marked and highlighted – and words need to be followed by actions. If the Council of Europe is serious about the standards it claims to uphold, Turkey cannot be allowed to continue to take part in all council activities as if nothing was amiss.

Turkey’s attacks on the mayors are just one of the ways that the HDP is illegally restricted and the democratic expression of Kurdish hopes denied. When democratic pathways are closed down, then people turn to other routes.