While opposition parties say the government has cracked down on local attempts to distribute aid, the president talks about preventing a “state within a state.”

As our regular readers know, TOL normally does not cover Turkey, unless an issue concerns one of the countries we do cover in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, through the fall and perhaps beyond, we are making an exception because of the dire situation faced by many journalists in Turkey since the attempted coup in 2016. After that dramatic event, almost 200 media outlets were closed down and scores of critically minded journalists lost their jobs and now struggle to eke out an existence. We are proud to provide some international exposure to many of these Turkish reporters and expand, at least for now, our mission of supporting independent journalism and the freedom of the media to this fascinating and important part of the world.

Turkish government attempts to ban locally organized aid efforts amid the coronavirus pandemic have intensified the conflict between the state and the opposition-run municipal authorities.

Unemployment and inflation have both soared since COVID-19 arrived in Turkey in mid-March, prompting the state to launch a range of support programs for vulnerable people. However, when some municipalities tried to create their own additional schemes, they found their way blocked.

On 31 March, the Interior Ministry instructed regional governors to prevent metropolitan municipalities (those in big cities) from organizing aid drives, and to seize the bank accounts and investigate those local authorities that tried to do so. Money seized has still not been returned to donors several months later, and its whereabouts is unclear.

“There is no point in being a state within the state,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, comparing municipalities collecting donations to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to the movement led by cleric Fethullah Gulen, which the state blames for the 2016 coup attempt.

Suleyman Soylu, the interior minister, echoed the president’s position on 1 April, accusing local authorities collecting cash without permission of wanting to establish a “new government.” 

To Discredit and Defame?

The ban is not limited to cash donations. Local authorities in the city of Mersin, which is run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), were prevented from distributing bread to citizens. CHP-run soup kitchens in districts of the cities of Antalya and Eskisehir were closed down and the provincial health department shuttered a field hospital set up by the CHP-led municipal authority in Adana on the grounds that its sanitary conditions were “not suitable for providing healthcare.”

Haydar Demir, a CHP city councilor in Ankara, described these measures as an attempt to “discredit and defame” services provided by local authorities.

“People don’t care where the aid comes from, and they are suffering from this situation,” Demir said, adding that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) had acted out of “jealousy.”

He rejected the suggestion that the CHP was behaving like an alternative government.

“Municipalities are part of the constitution and use powers given to them by the laws of the state,” he said.

Local authorities run by the pro-Kurdish, multiculturalist HDP opposition party have also been under pressure. Government-allied media outlets described the HDP’s Sister Families campaign, which aimed to encourage better-off families to help those suffering economically, as “aiding a terrorist organization.”

After Ayhan Bilgen, the HDP co-mayor of Kars in eastern Turkey, claimed that these attacks had government approval and that there were plans to remove his city from local political control, he received online death threats.

The row over the coronavirus pandemic comes after several years of emergency measures in which HDP mayors have been removed from their posts and replaced by state-appointed trustees – a measure that the government says is an essential part of its battle against Kurdish separatists.

The HDP says that its mayors’ programs have delivered aid to more than 75,000 people in 57 cities across Turkey during the pandemic.

According to Aysen Uysal, a political scientist from Turkey who currently works in France, the government has reacted this way because it fears losing power and influence if budget control is delegated to opposition-controlled entities. The message from the national government, said Uysal, was “only we can call the shots: you may be elected but since we are the state, it doesn’t matter.”

This comes at a potentially difficult moment for Turkey’s governing AKP. Kemal Ozkiraz, director of the Avrasya Research polling institute, said that recent unreleased data suggested that the AKP’s governing coalition could lose its majority in a future election.

At the same time, the main opposition coalition, led by the CHP, is also unable to command majority support. If this were to play out in a general election, it would make the HDP, currently polling at around 12 percent, an important powerbroker.

Accusations of Double Standards

Some AKP-run municipalities have continued to organize local aid efforts despite the official ban, leading to public criticism that the government was applying a double standard. In the southern city of Gaziantep, for example, the AKP-controlled Sahinbey municipality set up a call center to “answer demand from citizens who are in need of aid.” 

According to Sahinbey Mayor Mehmet Tahmazoglu, this municipality delivered over 93,000 family aid packages. In Konya in central Turkey, the AKP mayor declared that water bills would be lowered to help families in financial trouble during the pandemic. 

Opposition-run municipal authorities in some areas are also trying to continue their work.

“In Adana, the distribution of bread was officially prevented on the grounds that it was free,” said Serdar Seyhan, a CHP councilor in Adana. “We tried to deliver bread to citizens by selling at a very low price.”

Seyhan said that AKP officials last year threatened to cut funds to Adana if the CHP won control of the city in local elections.

“Now, seeing that the propaganda didn’t work, they have become nervous,” he continued.

Recalling that winning control of municipal authorities had been an important step in the AKP’s journey to power, Seyhan said that the government might now be worried that the CHP was repeating the trick. Opposition parties made gains in last year’s local elections, amid discontent at Turkey’s economic downturn, and the CHP won several high-profile victories including the hotly contested election for the mayor of Istanbul.

Tarik Balyali, a CHP councilor in Istanbul, said that his municipality was continuing to provide food aid. He also explained the ban as a result of last year’s local election results, saying that the government’s reputation was suffering as a result of its stubbornness.

“They are getting worse in the eyes of the public. Apparently the AKP still does not understand why it lost [Istanbul] last year.”

The pandemic has also created a budget crisis for municipal authorities, who are facing falling tax receipts.

“All municipalities – cities and districts – are facing a very serious income shortage,” said Balyali, who expects the Istanbul municipal authority to face a loss of 5.5 to 6 billion lira ($788,000-$860,000) from its income for 2020, a fall of up to 25 percent.

But he expects voters to blame national government policies.

“The pressure against CHP municipalities will backfire, because I believe that the public has seen and analyzed the situation,” he said. “We continue to do our job.”

Cagri Sari is the editor of the politics section of the Evrensel newspaper. Based in Istanbul, she previously spent six years at Hayat TV as a reporter and editor. Sari writes mostly about politics and freedom of the press.