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Turkey’s opposition-held municipalities struggle under AKP obstruction

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Turkish municipalities held by the opposition such as those in İstanbul, Ankara and predominantly Kurdish cities continue to operate under heavy pressure exerted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

On Sunday İstanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) announced on social media that the Turkish Court of Accounts (Sayıştay) ruled to annul a municipal social assistance program aimed at providing free public transport for the mothers of children up to 4 years of age and distributing free milk to some 115,000 children as well as extending education-related support to university students.

In another statement last week, İmamoğlu declared that the Treasury denied their request to issue bonds worth €301 million in order to continue unfinished subway construction. İmamoğlu had previously sought funding from publicly owned banks for priority subway lines, which the banks had denied. He then started to look for funding from Europe and was granted €110 million by Deutsche Bank.

Another blocked project was an increase in the number of cheap bread stalls for low-income people. The İstanbul Municipality, which had already boosted its production capacity by 50 percent to cover growing demand amid economic turbulence, proposed opening new stalls due long cheap bread lines. The proposal was shut down at the city council by members of the AKP and their ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

The İstanbul Municipality’s corruption probes are also being met with harsh reactions from the ruling party. İmamoğlu has unveiled two corruption dossiers related to AKP rule in the İstanbul Municipality.

The first abuse revealed by İmamoğlu was the alleged financing with TL 15.4 million ($2 million) in municipal funds of the AKP’s election campaign, for which İmamoğlu filed criminal complaints against 23 people. The government’s response was censorship. Courts ruled to ban reporting on the subject and to block access to all online news reports about it.

Secondly, a municipal inspection board found that the municipality had suffered a loss of TL 2.5 million ($325,000) in a green space tender held in 2016. The board requested an investigation into four former executives, which was blocked by the governor’s office.

Blocking of pandemic-related social assistance

Earlier this year, the government had sparked adverse reactions by blocking COVID-19 aid campaigns launched by 11 CHP-held municipalities, including those of İstanbul and Ankara. In a nationwide memorandum, the Interior Ministry barred the municipalities from collecting donations for pandemic relief.

The Burdur Governor’s Office blocked the distribution of some 200,000 face masks by the local municipality. A field hospital set up by the Adana Municipality amid the pandemic was shut down by local Health Ministry authorities. A Mersin Municipality campaign to deliver free bread to households was also banned by the government.

Fears that municipal assistance could benefit the opposition

Many have claimed that municipal assistance campaigns were blocked by the AKP government out of fear that they could end up growing the popularity of opposition parties.

The policy of obstruction was even extended to natural disasters when municipalities held by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were prevented from delivering aid after a devastating earthquake in the eastern provinces of Elazığ and Malatya and a temblor in Iran that caused significant damage in Van in the past year.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu claimed the aid was blocked because it was not dispatched in a “coordinated manner.”

Investigations as a tool to pressure municipalities

Investigations are another method employed to render municipalities dysfunctional. A total of 27 investigations were launched into İstanbul mayor İmamoğlu within a year.

The party that has the most difficulties with investigations is the pro-Kurdish HDP. A total of 55 out of 65 mayors elected from HDP ranks in the 2019 local elections have been removed from office by the Interior Ministry over alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Of them, 25 are currently in prison.

March 2019 local elections: an unexpected blow for the AKP

Turkey’s latest nationwide municipal polls, which were held on March 31, 2019, ended in the first significant electoral defeat by the AKP, which lost major cities such as İstanbul, Ankara and Antalya, while the AKP’s ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), lost the major cities of Adana and Mersin.

The elections marked the end of 25 years of conservative municipal rule in Ankara and İstanbul as they were won by the CHP. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan challenged the result in İstanbul, which was ultimately cancelled. A re-run held a few months later was won again by the CHP’s İmamoğlu, this time by a much greater margin.

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