[Public Diplomacy] The illiberal framework for Turkish municipalities‘ scope of action abroad (Part 4/8)

On this series: This blog post belongs to a series under the title and leading question „Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?“. The complete series are my contribution to an edited volume by Dr. Agata Rogoś, postdoctoral research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Agata’s Edited volume’s working title is „Permeability of dispossession / Dispossession of borders“. In accordance with her, I publish my contribution on my personal homepage, prior to the finalization of the book. The final version may still change, whether due to further copy editing and proofreading, or regarding the unclear and unforeseeable course of events and political circumstances in Europe, in the Western Balkans, and in Turkey. Yet, I believe that the phenomenon of cross-border neo-populism, as in the given case of Bosnia and Turkey, will not disappear any time soon. The complete list of references will be included in the first and in the last contribution of this series, which consists of eight single sections.

4. The illiberal framework for Turkey’s municipalities

Turkey is a centralized state with strict vertical hierarchies, many of which were inherited from the post-Coup d’État constitution of 1982. These structures approve of the recognizable traces of the military junta throughout the past four decades – and in fact, as Ayşe Gül Altınay had shown in her seminal The Myth of the Military Nation (Altınay 2004), the strong militarist legacies in Turkey date back to the late Ottoman period and the Republic’s very inception. Especially from the viewpoint of many Turkish perspectives, the long lasting intermezzo of unsuccessful struggles to adjust to the EU’s acquis communautaire (accelerating in the 1990s) and to achieve full membership passed on to repeated refusals by the EU, causing widespread frustration and disappointment in Turkey. The halting democratisation process, the continuing violation of human rights, the unsettled Cypriote question – and not to mention the Kurdish conflict and the negation of the Armenian genocide: all these topics, amongst others, are concrete obstacles in the relations between the EU and Turkey. Moreover, questions of identity, belonging and exclusion certainly played their role, whether on the European or the Turkish side (Terzi 2012; „Turkey and the EU 2018“).

The long shadow of all these conflicts resonates in the hierarchical interrelationship of Turkey’s territorial-administrative structures – and also in the way how relations are established to municipalities in the Balkans. In this regard, one territorial-administrative feature of Turkey is crucial: the institution of the district governorate (kaymakamlık) and/or the governorate (valilik), whose main administrator, the governor, is called kaymakam or vali. The vali is widely regarded as the state’s extended arm into the city – and in fact, it can be seen as a parallel administration to the elected mayors‘ offices.[1] The vali is directly bound to the centralized government in Ankara, and as such, it can bypass the electoral process, especially the local elections (Mahallî İdareler Genel Seçimleri). In this way, many local governments and municipal leaders who had been elected in the 2019 local elections were, in the meantime, forcibly dismissed and replaced by governors (vali / kaymakam).

For instance, after Ekrem İmamoğlu from the oppositional party CHP had won the 2019 local elections in Istanbul in the first round (31. March 2019), the ruling party AKP – following a well-known populist pattern – refused to accept the results; hence, the presidency decided that the vali Ali Yerlikaya would serve as the acting mayor of Istanbul, until the elections were repeated in June 2019 – only to be won by the CHP’s candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, once again. But while in Istanbul, the electorate’s decision was finally accepted by the regime, this was not the case in many other parts of the country — especially in eastern and southeastern Anatolia. The widespread practice of dismissal – often followed by the imprisonment of the political opponents – notably concerns members of the oppositional Peoples‘ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, henceforth: HDP) with its Kurdish roots. Many candidates were accused for being partisans of the militant Kurdistan Workers‘ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, henceforth: PKK), which is considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey and in the EU („Turkey: Kurdish Mayors’ Removal,“ 2020). While the PKK had been engaged in an armed guerilla warfare and a series of deadly, terrorist attacks since the 1990s (especially, yet not exclusively targeting Turkish soldiers), the HDP’s leadership had repeatedly distanced itself from violence and armed resistance. To the contrary, it advocates a political solution for all citizens within the framework of the Turkish state. Yet, the allegation of terrorism is used as a reliable method to discredit political opponents in the public opinion by the ruling party AKP. This method also resonates with support amongst most of the other political parties in Turkey.

A nationalist crowd in Istanbul-Kadıköy, just after the diluted elections on 7 June 2015. The elections were followed by a chain of violent and bloody events, which would take many people’s lives. The „kick-off“ event was the terror attack against young leftist activists in Suruç, situated at the Syrian border, just opposing Kobanê: the Kurdish town under heavy attack of militant Islamist fighters aligned with so-called ISIS or Daesh. The Turkish president then said: „Kobanê will fall, is falling at the moment“. Picture taken by Thomas Schad in 2015.

Critics of Turkey’s sociopolitical fabric refute the AKP-regime’s terror allegations against the HDP as arbitrary and manipulative: throughout the past years, and especially after the failed Coup d’État from 15. July 2016, it became overly obvious that allegations of terror and conspiracy can easily strike any given political, or even personal, opponent of president Erdoğan (cf. Turan/Çiçekoğlu 2019; Somay 2019). According to political scientist Bilgin Ayata (Ayata 2015) and lawyer Rıza Türmen[2], the HDP was attacked by the ruling regime precisely because it was seen as a „hope for democracy“ („HDP’nin Türkiyelileşmesi,“ 2018): the Kurdish rooted party had developed a liberal-democratic understanding of being Turkeyish (Türkiyeli), instead of being Turkish (Türk), which is an ethno-national category: unlike the latter, the former umbrella identity (Türkiyeli) can theoretically accommodate all ethnic and social groups of Turkey, independently of ethnic affiliation. At the same time, the HDP’s efforts for gender equality are expressed in its principle of a double male-female party leadership (Trogisch 2015): Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş formed the co-presidential leadership of the party together — clearly contradicting the ruling party’s patriarchal understanding of gender roles. Both Yüksekdağ and Demirtaş were imprisoned in 2016.

Any serious discussion on the possible impact of liberal mayoral coalitions need to take the HDP’s case into account: the HDP is probably the only significant liberal party in Turkey – and absent, so far, in the establishment of sibling cities with the Western Balkans. İmamoğlu’s Republican, Kemalist party CHP is no exception when „vital“ national issues, such as the Kurdish conflict and warfare, are concerned. Given the heavy burden of the CHP’s nationalist, overwhelmingly illiberal legacy, the HDP-governed municipalities in the southeast deserve even more attention than Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory – at least if we should not lose track of the leading question whether possible alternatives could emerge from liberal local governments. Given all these conflicts and frictions, it can hardly surprise that the existing sibling-cities-arrangements between overwhelmingly illiberal Turkish municipalities and their Balkan partners often export these tensions abroad — as the following sections shall show.

Recommended form of citation

Schad, Thomas. (2021) ‚The illiberal framework for Turkish municipalities’ scope of action abroad‘ ( = Part 4 of the series Can networks of local governments challenge the rise of cross-border neo-populism?)Inkubator Metamorph, 23 June. Available at: https://thomasschad.wordpress.com/2021/06/23/public-diplomacy-the-illiberal-framework-for-turkeys-municipalities-part-4-8/ (Accessed: Date of access).

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[1] Very recently, the former MP Berhan Şimşek from the CHP was brought on charges for his public statement on television that „the vali is a militant, the kaymakam is a militant, the judges are militants (…)“. In a report by the independent news site T24, he was quoted with the self-defense „the emperor is naked“: he was just stating the obvious. („Bakanlıktan „vali militan, kaymakam militan“, 2021; „CHP’li Berhan Şimşek: Valilerin iktidarın değil, devletin valisi“, 2021)

[2] Türmen is a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights and a member of the party CHP.


Find all the referencese in the first blog post of this series (click here)


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