The second era of trustee rule in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast

I don’t know how this period will be recorded in Turkish history, but for the sake of clarity I have decided to call it “the second trusteeship era,” or alternatively, “the second trusteeship sultanate.”

The first trusteeship era began in Sept. of 2016, when the central government began removing locally elected representatives from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and replacing them with trustees from the ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP). In the end, of the 102 pro-Kurdish municipal governments, 95 were governed under trusteeships for three years.

Many, including myself, have written on what government appointed trustees did in the first era. It is worth recapitulating some of their actions. The trustees began their political actions in the realm of arts and culture. They removed multi-lingual signs and replaced them with Turkish signs. The Kurdish names of cities, such as Amed and Dersim, were overpowered by their Turkish signifiers, Diyarbakır and Tunceli. A total of 21 cultural centres were shut down by trustees.

The names of parks and streets were changed, and memorials were taken down. Icons of Kurdish culture and memorials of anti-Kurdish massacres, including Orhan Doğan, Ehmedê Xanî, Roboski, and Uğur Kaymaz were destroyed.

Government appointed trustees practically declared war on Kurdish society’s symbols and values; theatres, multi-lingual schools, libraries, and music academies dedicated to preserving Kurdish culture were shut down. Some trustees even shut down taziye houses, which provide communal resources for mourning following the death of a loved one.

Another target of the trusteeships were gains made in women’s rights. Trustees shut down 43 women’s centres and two women’s shelters. Political offices tasked with addressing women’s issues were closed, along with women’s helplines. Female bus drivers were fired. Trustees tried to erase all traces of women in the public sphere.

Then this year, in the local elections held on March 31, the HDP won back 69 municipalities, including 3 major metropolitan areas. When HDP mayors won the elections and resumed their positions, they were able to expose the municipal debts that trustees had accumulated in their time in office. All of the municipal governments run by trustees had racked up billions of liras in debt.

We learned how they wracked up this debt in the months between April-May of this year. I personally witnessed much of this during my visits to these municipalities. Gold-enamelled restrooms, ultra-luxurious offices, showers… The tons of desserts consumed in these three years, the “gifts” presented to visitors… These all came to light within a few months of the change in administrations.

Who knows what more would have been exposed, if not for the new round of government appointed trustees that interrupted this period of transparency. With the appointment of trusteeships in the southeastern and eastern cities of Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin in August 2019, the second trusteeship era began. These appointments are still continuing. First trustees are assigned, and then the trustee accuses the elected mayor of a crime and sends them to jail. Since August, 24 mayors in the region have been replaced with trustees.

Thirteen co-mayors have been arrested. Fourty-four members of parliament have been taken into custody, and 9 have been arrested. Many city council members have been removed from their positions. Within a short period, the will of almost 2 million voters, most of whom are Kurdish, was violated. Since trusteeships were first appointed in 2016, the image that has most vividly stuck with me has been that of flags and armoured vehicles encircling municipal buildings.

In this second era, the image that stays with me has been that of removed mayors waiting outside municipal buildings, after trustees refused them access to the buildings they were elected to govern. This may not mean anything to you, but this visual, this waiting at the door, this elected official unable to enter his/her own building, broke the hearts of many Kurdish people like myself.

In a report released by the Diyarbakır-based Sociopolitical Field Research Centre (SAMER), 81.3 per cent of respondents from Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin said that they do not support the appointment of trustees. In fact, I was in Mardin and Diyarbakır during the appointments, and I heard the same sentiments from many people, including AKP supporters.

Local residents do not support the trustee appointments. The ruling party can continue sending trustees as much as it wants, but in the elections Kurdish people will continue voting for representatives of the Kurdish political movement and the Kurdish political movement will win the elections every time (with some possible exceptions). What will happen then? Will the government discount the results of every election, and appoint trustees? Will this continue forever?

I have a suggestion for the government. It should stop exhausting itself and the Kurdish people. It should openly admit that it no longer abides by this country’s laws, and call the regime what it is. This way they can relax, and so can we.