Crackdown: What Turkey’s Most Disenfranchised Province Says About Erdogan’s Authoritarianism
From December 2016 to April 2017, residents of Hakkari, a Kurdish-majority province of Turkey on the border with Iraq and Iran, found themselves completely lacking in elected representation.
All three of the province’s elected MPs had been jailed. Just one MP would be able to complete his term; two would spend the conclusion of their terms in prison. The province’s four elected district mayors had been imprisoned or removed. No other citizens of Turkey have been subjected to such thorough disenfranchisement since the complete dissolution of parliament in 1980.
After they had the chance to vote again, in 2018 and 2019, their elected representation was targeted once more. This time, one of the province’s three MPs was imprisoned and removed, along with two of its four district mayors.
Understanding how and why this happened shows the degree to which Turkey today is an authoritarian state. Pro-Kurdish parties may have the right to contest elections, and their supporters may have the right to vote — but these parties are systemically denied the right to govern when they win, and their voters are thus systemically denied elected representation. This has important implications for the future of the country as a whole.
2014–2015: A Pro-Kurdish Landslide
In 2013, the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed political movement fighting for Kurdish rights and self-determination, entered into peace negotiations. This created a new opening for civilian pro-Kurdish politics to thrive with less fear of state repression.
As a result, legal pro-Kurdish political parties secured significant electoral victories. Hakkari was no exception. The province saw some of the largest victories for these parties in the entire country.
In the March 2014 local elections, all four districts (ilçe) in Hakkari—Hakkari Center, Yuksekova, Şemdinli, and Çukurca—voted for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The BDP’s highest margins of victory were in the most populous districts: Hakkari Center and Yuksekova.
Two towns (belde) voted for the BDP— Büyükçiftlik and Esendere in Yuksekova. The town of Derecik, in Şemdinli, supported the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the town of Durankaya, in Hakkari center, supported an independent candidate.
In the November 2015 parliamentary elections, Hakkari voted overwhelmingly for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP’s vote share there was the second-highest vote share for any party in the November 2015 election. The highest vote share also belonged to the HDP, which won 85% of the vote in neighboring Sirnak. Notably, the HDP was the only party in the country to win more than 80% of the vote in any province in that election.
Electoral data clearly shows that there was an incontestable popular mandate for pro-Kurdish parties and their policy platforms in the province, particularly at the national level.
The state’s abandonment of the peace process in late 2015 led to a deadly resumption of conflict in which entire towns were flattened by the Turkish military, as well as a mass crackdown on civilian pro-Kurdish opposition.
The removal and imprisonment of elected officials was one element of this crackdown. MPs and mayors from pro-Kurdish political parties were among the tens of thousands of civilians jailed on politically-motivated terrorism charges.
This meant that the civilian populations subjected to the most state violence and discrimination had the least elected representation to advocate for their rights and safety. Human Rights Watch found that “the crackdown on democratically elected officials not only violates their rights to political association and participation, and freedom of expression, but also interferes with the rights of constituents who voted for them and whom they serve in office.”
Hakkari was the province hit hardest, in numerical terms, by this particular authoritarian tactic.
All four elected BDP district mayors in Hakkari were either imprisoned, removed from office, or both prior to the end of the term. Two district municipalities attempted to replace elected BDP mayors who were individually removed or imprisoned with elected BDP municipal councillors— who were later removed or imprisoned themselves.
Ultimately, all four district municipalities were seized by the state between October 2016 and January 2017. Elected BDP leaders were replaced by appointed trustees loyal to the AKP. 46,313 people who had voted for the BDP in 2014 were disenfranchised by this state takeover.
At the national level, the province was no better off. All three of its elected MPs were arrested in November 2016, leaving the province with no representation in parliament at all for five months.
One MP was released in April 2017 and was able to return to parliament. The other two remained in prison through the end of the 2015–2018 parliamentary term, leaving the province with just one-third of its elected representation.
All three elected HDP MPs for Hakkari for the 2015–2018 term are now included on the list of more than 400 politicians who will be subjected to a total ban from political activity if the current closure case against the HDP succeeds.
In total, 114,906 people who voted for the HDP in Hakkari in 2015 were disenfranchised at the national level.
2018–2019: The HDP Recovers
In the 2018 parliamentary elections and the 2019 local elections, the HDP recovered most of its losses. By monopolizing municipal resources through state takeovers, making mere association with pro-Kurdish parties enough to cost one one’s freedom, and otherwise creating an unfair election environment, the AKP was able to gain seats in both elections.
Yet despite repression and irregularities, the HDP’s overall margins of victory remained respectable.
In the June 2018 parliamentary elections, the HDP won two of Hakkari’s three parliamentary seats, earning 70% of the vote in the province. The AKP won one seat with 20% of the vote.
One of the two victorious HDP candidates, Leyla Guven, was in prison when she won. She had been arrested in early 2018 for protesting Turkey’s invasion and occupation of the Kurdish-majority region of Afrin, Syria, and was not allowed to take her seat after the election.
In the March 2019 local elections, the HDP won the two largest of Hakkari’s four district municipalities, Hakkari Center and Yuksekova. The AKP won the two smaller district municipalities, Şemdinli and Çukurca.
2019–2021: Repression Returns
The Erdogan regime wasted little time in persecuting HDP elected officials who had won back seats where their predecessors had been imprisoned or removed.
Many HDP mayors elected in the March 2019 elections served only a few months in office. Both HDP district mayors elected in Hakkari were removed, replaced with trustees, and imprisoned just seven months into their terms, disenfranchising 39,449 HDP voters.
While HDP Hakkari MP Leyla Guven was ultimately allowed to take office a year after her election, she served for less than a year before being stripped of her seat. Months later, she was sentenced to 22 years in prison for making a political speech.
A total of 98,062 HDP voters were disenfranchised by her removal and imprisonment— though this time, they lost just one of the two MPs they had legally voted into office.
Every BDP or HDP district mayor elected in Hakkari in the past two local election cycles was removed from office and replaced with a trustee before the conclusion of their term. Five out of six were also imprisoned.
Four out of the five HDP MPs elected in Hakkari in the past two parliamentary election cycles were arrested while in office and spent a portion of their term in prison. Two out of five have been formally removed from office as well.
The use of this tactic has left tens of thousands of voters in the province disenfranchised. At the height of the first crackdown, every district mayor and MP elected in Hakkari had been deposed, imprisoned, or both, meaning that the province had no elected representation at all for months.
A country where this can happen cannot be classified as a democracy—even if it has elections. Moreover, the same tactic is regularly used in several other provinces of Turkey where pro-Kurdish parties find electoral success. There is no other country on earth where so many voters are regularly stripped of elected representation by means of politicized, arbitrary arrests and seizures of elected governments. (This author may, in the future, conduct similar provincial-level analyses of repression of pro-Kurdish parties to further expand on this point. The more you read and share this one, the more likely that is.)
There are two key takeaways from this pattern that anyone seeking to understand the current status and future trajectory of authoritarianism in Turkey should understand.
First, it is essential to note that even a severely anti-democratic status quo has not been enough to substantially weaken the HDP. While the AKP has been able to make some gains in Kurdish regions compared to its 2014–2015 showing, they are rather small compared to the level of repression required to maintain them. The HDP clearly has a base of support that is willing and able to withstand state violence in order to make its voice heard in democratic politics. The Erdogan regime’s recent effort to close the HDP is likely a response to the failure of mass disenfranchisement and removals of elected officials to meaningfully harm the party’s popularity.
Second, the repressive tactics used against pro-Kurdish parties prove that Erdogan is willing and able to overturn the results of democratic elections—no matter how much his opponents may win by. With polls showing the potential for an opposition victory in 2023, it is impossible to discount the possibility that these tactics might be used against new targets. Observers hanging on to a false understanding of Turkish democracy must look past their nationalist biases and recognize that the entire country may soon be treated like Kurdish regions have been.