ISSN 2330-717X

Mayors Left Behind As Erdogan Pulls Up The Ladder – OpEd

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By Yasar Yakis*

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is ravaging the world, but still genuine cooperation could not be carried out among nations. In Turkey, this lack of cooperation manifested itself in a different form. Ordinary people did their best to help each other — the solidarity among individuals was perfect. The youths of every neighborhood organized among themselves to help the elderly meet their basic needs. But, while people were performing so well, unnecessary greed between the central authorities and a few municipalities spoiled the atmosphere.

The metropolitan municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara undertook an initiative to raise funds to help the needy, including workers who lost their job as a result of the pandemic. They opened a bank account and invited the public to deposit money, which would be distributed to those in need. A lot of money had accumulated in the bank account as early as the evening of the first day.

The day after this initiative was launched, the government announced that such municipality campaigns were illegal. It blocked the bank account opened by the Istanbul council, saying that the provincial governor’s authorization had to be obtained for such an action, and instead launched its own campaign to raise money for the same purpose. 

The case is now being brought to court. The Istanbul municipality claims that the government blocked the bank account because it does not want to see the city, which is run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), be successful in the eyes of the electorate. The court will now decide whether the government’s initiative was politically motivated.

The government took similar action with the distribution of protective face masks. It announced that large quantities would be manufactured and made available at a reasonable price. When the municipalities of some major cities started to distribute such masks free of charge, the government stepped in and announced that it would offer the same service. Even the delivery would be free. So, this time, the competition between the central government and local administrations served a useful purpose, as the people were able to acquire free face masks.

Semiha Oyus, a Member of Parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), brought her own contribution to this row by claiming that eating the food distributed by the opposition-controlled Aydin municipality was religiously forbidden (haram).

Last week, another municipality, Eskisehir, published an announcement asking benefactors to stop contributing to the bank account it was using to finance the distribution of meals to needy people and students. The reason was again the blocking of the account by the government. The practice of distributing food to the poor is a deeply rooted tradition that goes back centuries in Turkish culture. No government in living memory has banned such a useful humanitarian action. The mayor of Eskisehir, Yilmaz Buyukersen, has been very successful. He has been elected five consecutive times and has been in the position for more than 20 years. This interference from the central authorities is nothing more than an attempt to interfere with the performance of another successful mayor from the CHP.

This attitude of the central government is in stark contrast to what the AKP was doing in its early years in power. One of the first major laws that it passed in the early 2000s saw it devolve much authority to the local administrations. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was, at that time, a strong supporter of such moves. He promoted the idea that the local administrations were closer to the people than the central authorities, and therefore they had to exercise more power. 

Erdogan had served, in the mid-1990s, as the mayor of Istanbul and he suffered a lot from the slowness of the decision-making process of the central authorities on matters pertaining to the municipalities. He complained that he could not implement many proposed projects because of the obstruction of central government. 

Decentralization is also a major rule within the EU, which Turkey has aspirations of joining. The principle of subsidiarity means that Brussels should not take action in an area unless it is more effective than action taken at the national or local level. So Erdogan’s desire to devolve competences to the municipalities was also in line with EU rules. 

However, after the AKP became stronger, it changed its approach and distanced itself from the principle of decentralization. It started to curtail the power of the local authorities. After the last mayoral elections of May 2019, the government removed many elected mayors from their posts and substituted them with bureaucrats. 

This is the application of the famous rule in social sciences that says: “Now that we have climbed up, let us remove the ladder.”

  • Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar

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