On March 31, I was reelected as the mayor of Mardin, Turkey. For me, as for so many of my colleagues in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), this was no ordinary vote — we were running to retake positions from which we had been arbitrarily expelled.
I was first elected as mayor in Mardin in 2014. Yet just two years into my five-year term, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on Kurdish politics and civil society, removing nearly 100 HDP mayors from our posts and replacing them with state appointees.
While I and dozens of my colleagues were jailed on terrorism charges — but in reality for the offense of having won a democratic vote — our unelected replacements worked to suffocate the will of the people. They removed the Kurdish language from public life, suppressed demonstrations and reportedly spent public funds on lavish gifts for other state officials.
When I was released from prison and allowed to run for my seat once again, I was committed to righting the wrongs that these placeholders had inflicted on my constituents.
On Aug. 19, history repeated itself. I learned from the television news that I, along with the HDP mayors of Diyarbakir and Van, had once again been removed from office by an order from the Interior Ministry. Since then, our supporters have been in the streets, facing water cannons and beatings simply for demanding that their votes should count.
We all stand accused of supporting terrorism. In reality, like the tens of thousands of people hit with this catchall charge under Erdogan, all we had done was oppose the government’s tyrannical policies. The three of us represent the third-largest political party in Turkey. The relevant authorities approved all of our mayoral candidacies before we ran. We won easy majorities, increasing the HDP’s vote shares in areas where it was already strong.
But then came Aug. 19. And as on so many previous occasions before when the government decided to choose between democracy and force, it picked the latter.
Like tens of millions of Kurds across our region, I am no stranger to state repression. Since I was first elected to the Turkish Parliament in 1973, I have been removed from office multiple times and spent more than five years in jail, simply for doing the work my constituents elected me to do. Before joining the HDP, I participated in the founding of several pro-Kurdish parties, all of which were shut down as a result of politically motivated show trials.
These anti-democratic offenses have always been justified in the name of fighting “terrorism” or “separatism” — even as the government terrorized civilians and frustrated any effort to achieve peace. When the international community asks why Erdogan felt empowered to annul an Istanbul mayoral election earlier this year or to jail so many of his critics without trials, it must recognize that his predecessors have spent the past several decades refining these tactics against the Kurdish people.
Erdogan is now threatening Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu with the same treatment I have faced. His definition of “terrorism” has expanded to include not only the state’s traditional victims but also all who dare to show solidarity with them. This development makes one truth clearer than it has ever been: Turkey cannot be a true democracy for any of its citizens until it becomes one for its Kurdish population.
That is what the HDP is working toward — and that is why the elements of the state that use autocracy to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of their people attack us. What matters now is whether this understanding is reciprocated.
Many who otherwise value democracy, both in Turkey and internationally, have been silent when our party’s efforts to defend it are attacked. Each time a fair vote is overturned without outcry, the state becomes more confident that it can do so again. Our party fights for all the oppressed people of our country because we believe that fight will lead to greater freedom for everyone. It is time for all who value that freedom to join us.
While I may no longer hold elected office, I am as dedicated to defending the will of the people as ever. We can stand up to those who renounce democracy and pluralism only by reaffirming the strength of our unrelenting and universal commitment to both principles. After so many years of repression, I still believe that it is possible to have a future where that commitment is the basis of government.
Ahmet Turk is a veteran Kurdish politician in southeastern Turkey.