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Turkey Local Elections 2024: Disenfranchisement Watch

The denial of fundamental civil and political rights to millions of Kurds living within the borders of Turkey is at the center of Turkey’s unresolved ‘Kurdish question’ and the regional conflicts arising from it. The status of local governance in Kurdish regions is an essential indicator for observers of these issues. At the local level, Kurdish communities have been able to achieve some level of self-governance and pro-Kurdish parties have been able to implement some of the policies around linguistic and cultural rights, decentralization, and democratization that they hope to see implemented on the national level. At the same time, the government has cracked down significantly on Kurdish mayors and municipalities since abandoning the peace process in 2015, with repressive tactics tested there slowly expanding to other targets across Turkey.

At the Kurdish Peace Institute, we have published exclusive data on the scale of disenfranchisement at the local level following the 2014 and 2019 electoral cycles, highlighted the correlation between disenfranchisement and political violence, and explained how state intervention in Kurdish local governance hinders local campaigns for peace and justice. In the aftermath of the March 31 local elections, we will be following state attempts to disenfranchise Kurdish voters at the local level and the implications of such tactics for broader questions of peace and democracy.

Van Metropolitan Municipality Returned to DEM Party After Mass Protests

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) restored Van Metropolitan Municipality mayoral candidate Abdullah Zeydan’s mandate on April 3, following a night of mass protests in Van and other Kurdish provinces and an outcry from supporters of democracy across Turkey and worldwide. The decision reversed a previous ruling by the Van Provincial Election Board that had given the mayorship to second-place AKP candidate Abdulahat Avras.

“As a result of the resistance of the Kurdish people, our friends, and democratic public opinion, the certificate of election was given to our Van Metropolitan Municipality Co-Mayor Abdullah Zeydan. Long live the resistance of the Kurdish people!,” the DEM party wrote in a Twitter post. On April 2, DEM officials had appealed to the YSK challenging the Provincial Election Board’s decision to deny Zeydan a mandate.

This is the first time that Erdogan’s government has restored a pro-Kurdish candidate to office after seizing control of a municipality. Tens of thousands of Kurds braving police brutality and armed pro-government vigilantes to protest and condemnations of the theft from across the political spectrum — including clear statements and a solidarity visit to Van from the main opposition CHP — may have pushed the state to back down.

Irregularities in other Kurdish provinces have not yet been addressed.

Van Metropolitan Municipality Mayorship Given to Second-Place AKP Candidate

On Tuesday, April 2, election authorities disqualified the winning pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party (DEM) candidate for mayor of Van Metropolitan Municipality. The mayorship was instead awarded to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate, who came in at a distant second place.

Van is one of three metropolitan municipalities won by the DEM Party this year. In the March 2019 local elections, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) candidate Bedia Ozgokce Ertan won the Van metropolitan mayorship with 54% of the vote, or 260,495 total votes. Ertan was replaced by a state-appointed trustee in August 2019. In the March 2014 local elections, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) candidate Bekir Kaya won the Van metropolitan mayorship with 53% of the vote. Kaya was replaced by a state-appointed trustee in November 2016.

This year, DEM’s Abdullah Zeydan won 55% of the vote, earning 245,573 votes in total. AKP candidate Abdulahat Avras won just 27% of the vote, or 120,147 votes. 

An official DEM Party statement made the following allegations about the government’s legal reasoning for Zeydan’s disqualification:

“As is widely known, Mr. Zeydan, completed all requisite legal procedures and successfully secured candidacy approval from the Supreme Election Board (YSK) after rigorous scrutiny. Mr. Zeydan garnered substantial support from the people of Van and was duly elected.

However, merely five minutes before the close of business on Friday, March 29, 2024, and a mere two days before the election, the Ministry of Justice, via an administrative decision and correspondence, contested the legal credentials of Mr, Zeydan, who had been restored his full civil rights by a court decision when released from prison in 2022. Following Friday’s administrative decision and objection letter, which was essentially a directive, the authorized prosecutor’s office resubmitted the matter to the court that had issued the decision to restore his civil rights two years ago. That same day, the court revoked their own previous decision and dismissed Mr Zeydan’s civil rights application; and they pre-emptively informed the YSK prior to the formalisation of their new reversed decision, thus curtailing the right to object and appeal.” 

In 2019, winning pro-Kurdish mayoral candidates in six districts were denied their mandates in a similar way. In all six cases, election authorities awarded the mandate to second-place AKP candidates.

The DEM Party has called for protests in Van and urged widespread domestic and international condemnation of the incident.

Election Day Irregularities: ‘Mobile Voters’ and Securitization

Local media and the pro-Kurdish DEM party alleged that thousands of members of the Turkish military and police forces who are not local to Kurdish provinces were transferred to these provinces to vote. DEM spokesperson Aysegul Dogan claimed the party had identified 46,901 such ‘mobile voters’ in 31 districts.

In Kurdish-majority Sirnak Center district, the pro-Kurdish DEM Party alleges that these votes shifted the outcome. They claim that a total of 6,541 illegitimate votes were cast in the district to put the AKP over the top.

This is a credible allegation. Local media documented security forces escorting alleged ‘mobile voters’ into the province and large groups of men appearing to be soldiers or police officers in civilian clothes voting en masse in certain polling stations. DEM easily won the mayorships of other districts in Sirnak province with margins over 50%; the party also won 55% of the vote in the provincial council election compared to the AKP’s 24%. When DEM officials and supporters attempted to observe the vote counting, many were beaten and detained.

The day after the election, Turkish Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya shared footage of military operations in Sirnak on his Twitter account — interpreted by observers as a threat to Kurdish voters and activists protesting the irregular results. Sirnak is located strategically on Turkey’s border with Iraq and Syria. It has been heavily militarized for decades. Security forces stationed there have enjoyed impunity for killings, disappearances, and other serious crimes against local Kurdish populations. Those populations have no democratic control over the presence or actions of security forces and very little legal recourse to address violations.

As this election illustrates, the securitization of the region is not only useful for the state’s military objectives in its conflicts with armed Kurdish groups domestically and in Iraq and Syria — it also creates infrastructure the state can use to intervene in legal, civilian politics.

 (Photo by Huseyin Yavuz/ dia images via Getty Images)

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About the Author

Meghan Bodette - KPI Research Associate

Meghan Bodette

Director of Research

Meghan Bodette is the Director of Research at the Kurdish Peace Institute. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, where she concentrated in international law, institutions, and ethics. Her research focu…

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