Behind Turkey’s democratic veneer — a Kurdish perspective

April 10, 2024
co-mayors in Van
Peoples Equality and Democracy Party Mayor, Abdullah Zeydan (right) and Co-Mayor Neslihan Şedal, in Van. Photo: @neslihansedal65/X

After the disappointment of May’s general and presidential elections, which saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamo-nationalist alliance consolidate control, hopes were low for the March 31 local elections.

When results showed that the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) had pushed Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) into second place, international commentators were quick to hail the election as evidence of Turkish democracy. Erdoğan jumped at the opportunity to sugar-coat his loss by declaring “The victor of this election is democracy”.

The Council of Europe’s delegation of election observers raised concerns over the wider political environment in a media statement; however, with respect to the day, found little to criticise.

But it wasn’t long before the democratic veneer became unstuck.

'Coup' in Van defeated

The first clearly visible crack in the democratic façade took place in the city of Van, where the pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party (DEM Party) candidate Abdullah Zeydan received 55% of the vote — double the 27% received by the AKP runner-up.

The DEM Party has a co-leadership system, with a woman and a man sharing all leadership roles. This includes co-Mayors, but the system is not officially accepted, so one of these co-Mayors has to be nominated as the Mayor officially recognised by the state. In Van, the candidate chosen by the DEM Party for the official mayoral post was Zeydan.

Zeydan had been elected as an MP for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) — DEM Party’s predecessor — in 2015 and 2016. Along with other Kurdish parliamentarians, Zeydan was arrested and imprisoned under the country’s notoriously elastic anti-terrorism laws.

He was sentenced in 2018 by the Diyarbakır 5th High Criminal Court, but the Appeals Court demanded a retrial, and in January 2022, the same Diyarbakır court ruled for his release.

Zeydan then appealed for the return of his civil rights, and in April last year the Diyarbakır court agreed to this.

Zeydan submitted all his documents, including those pertaining to his return of rights, to the Supreme Election Council (YSK), which approved his candidacy for Mayor. However, five minutes before the end of the working day on the Friday before the election, he was informed that his civil rights had again been revoked by the same Diyarbakır court that had restored them, at the instigation of the Ministry of Justice.

Despite his victory, the Van Provincial Electoral Board decided on April 2 to award the mayoralty to the AKP candidate instead.

This was essentially a repeat of what had happened after the 2019 local elections, when six Kurdish mayors were replaced in this way. Forty-eight of the remaining 59 HDP mayors elected were later removed and replaced by government-appointed trustees, with many of the deposed mayors being imprisoned or forced into exile.

Ninety-seven out of 102 HDP mayors elected in 2014 were previously removed and replaced by trustees. The threat of removal and prison hangs over every elected DEM Party mayor.

The “coup” in Van, as the DEM Party described it, brought hundreds of thousands of angry people onto the streets: not just in Van, and not just DEM Party supporters.

The main protest rally included speakers from the CHP and the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP). Messages of support for Zeydan and criticism of the Turkish authorities were shared by international politicians, including the European Union’s Turkey Rapporteur, Nacho Sánchez Amor, and the international media registered their concern.

Protesters, including children, were met by high-pressure water hoses, gas, rubber bullets at close range and beatings. In Hakkari, protesters were attacked by armed men, who were accompanied by the police. A 15-day ban on protests was announced for Van, and hundreds of people were detained over 14 provinces.

The protests were still growing when the authorities recognised that they had misjudged the extent of the anger that their dismissal of democracy would provoke. The YSK responded to the DEM Party’s formal objection and overturned the decision of the local board on April 3, and the Certificate of Election was finally given to Zeydan.

Resistance had worked, and mass protest was replaced by mass celebration.

The only mass activity visible on the city’s streets by April 4 was local people, including the new co-Mayors, with dustpans and brooms, sweeping away the protest debris and cleansing their city from government occupation.

Transported voters

In their south-eastern strongholds, the DEM Party’s intensive grassroots campaigning paid off. Their 5.7% share of the national vote matched the 2009 high for a pro-Kurdish party in local elections.

At a superficial glance, the high tally of municipalities the DEM Party won hid the calculated attempt by government authorities to swing the results by transporting large numbers of pro-government voters to key DEM-supporting areas.

This manipulation of the voter rolls has hardly been remarked on outside the DEM Party, which has long been trying to warn others of what was happening.

Combing through the official records, party researchers found many addresses where hundreds or even thousands of names were listed. The party challenged this with the electoral authorities, but their challenge was rejected.They also sent their dossier of addresses to the Council of Europe.

Soldiers and police are permitted to vote where they have been deployed, which can make a difference in places that are essentially under military occupation; but what happened at this election went beyond that. On election day, buses containing thousands of young men of military age were filmed arriving at the polling stations.

The size of the turnout for the DEM Party ensured that this manipulation was not always successful, but the party has produced a list of 10 municipalities where the number of “transported voters” exceeded the margin by which the DEM Party lost — robbing the people of their electoral choice.

These included the central areas of Şirnak and Kars. In Kars, where it is calculated that 4000 people were brought in to vote, transported voters allowed the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to take control, while in the other nine places, the AKP took control.

The DEM Party has again raised formal complaints over the manipulations. In Kars, the CHP also called publicly for the election to be annulled, but to no avail.

Despite receiving the DEM Party’s dossier of addresses, the Council of Europe made no attempt to verify the evidence given to them. Instead, they chose simply to visit polling stations chosen at random.

Other undemocratic practices

Where the government’s plans failed to come to fruition, other tactics were put into play.

In Hilvan, in the province of Urfa, the DEM Party received 33.2% of the vote and the AKP 30.7%. On election day, a group including the AKP candidate’s nephew were filmed burning the contents of two ballot boxes. When they failed to win, the AKP objected to the results and the authorities agreed to rerun the election, citing the burnt ballots. The local CHP MP observed on his social media account, "It is clear as day that this incident was carried out to create evidence in order to ensure the cancellation of the election."

In Bitlis, the AKP was said to have beaten the DEM Party by just 198 votes, a difference of less than one percentage point in vote share. At the same time, 2018 votes were declared invalid, and there were reports of valid DEM Party votes being misallocated. Before the DEM Party’s appeal to the Supreme Election Council had run its course, the certificate of election was given to the AKP candidate.


Where DEM Party co-mayors have taken office, they have immediately made clear that they will operate in a very different way from the government trustees who previously controlled many of the municipalities. Their first acts have been literally to break down the barriers separating them from their fellow citizens. In Akdeniz the co-Mayors took up screw drivers to take down the pompous doors of the municipal offices.

From the government side, some of the trustees carried out a final spending spree with municipal resources before relinquishing control. In Cizre, the outgoing trustee spent nearly half of the April budget in her final hour in office, and left the municipality ₺772 million (more than €22 million) in debt.

Women politicians

The foreign press has also celebrated the election of more women mayors — and it was particularly pleasing to see the DEM Party’s Gulistan Sonuk win Batman with 65% of the vote, while her nearest rival, from the misogynist HÜDA PAR, got only 16%.

However, the percentage of female mayors and candidates is still very low. Women will lead just 11 out of 81 cities. And as a reminder of the general status given to women, a village headman in Urfa was re-elected despite having been sued for sexual harassment of a fourteen-year-old girl and put under house arrest.

An uncertain future

Although most Kurds in Istanbul and other western cities voted tactically for CHP candidates so as to keep out the AKP, and although the CHP has also protested the government’s suppression of the democratic vote, there is no guarantee that a stronger CHP will make Kurdish lives easier.

It is also a source of concern that if Erdoğan is weakened, he will become more dependent on the support of the ultranationalist MHP, as happened in 2015, and more driven by bellicose rhetoric.The election results reflect growing despair with the Turkish economy. The favourite distraction from problems at home is to unite the people against stigmatised others, both nationally and internationally: in Turkey’s case that means against the Kurds.

Every Kurdish achievement is followed by further struggle.

[Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist based in Strasbourg. Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter/X @sarahrglynn.]

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