Turkey’s ‘Communist Mayor’ Tears Down Walls with Fresh Approach
On his election, Fatih Macoglu‘s first move as mayor of his Turkish city was to knock down the walls around his office as a symbol of his transparency.
He refuses to use his official car and has posted his administration’s finances on a banner on the front of his office building to show people how he is spending their money.
As Turkey’s only Communist Party mayor, Macoglu, 50, is winning fans but has also drawn criticism with his novel approach, in a country dominated for 17 years by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s ruling AK Party.
“There is nothing more natural than the public knowing what’s going on,” Macoglu told AFP, in an interview at his office.
“This shouldn’t be an insult or a curse word for anyone.”
In the March 31 local polls, Macoglu was elected mayor of Tunceli in eastern Anatolia — formerly known as Dersim — a majority Kurdish Alevi city, which is very secular and left-leaning.
It’s not his first mayoral term.
In 2014, he was elected mayor of the town of Ovacik, also in Tunceli province, and also for the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP).
During his term in office, he instigated popular initiatives, including promoting agriculture and free public transport.
Macoglu, often dubbed “the Communist mayor”, said he took over an “emptied” municipality in Tunceli, with all its income confiscated.
The city was previously controlled by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and then by a “kayyum” — a government-appointed trustee put in place by Erdogan’s government after a 2016 coup attempt.
The married father-of-two said that he doesn’t see himself as “a communist mayor”. “I am a socialist,” he said.
But he added: “If you ask ‘Are you a socialist? Are you aiming for communism?’ Of course I am, but at a time when capitalism has gone wild, to be a communist or to be seen as a communist city seems like an exaggeration.”
Tunceli has a long history of leftist resistence.
In 1938, the Turkish military bombarded and attacked the region to crush a Kurdish rebellion that was resisting the authority of the new republic founded in 1923.
In 2011, Erdogan — then prime minister — apologised for the killing of more than 13,000 Kurds in the attack, marking the first time a state representative had done so.
Most residents still prefer to use the name Dersim, but nationalists see that as an insult to Turkey’s modern republic, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who himself named the city Tunceli.
Macoglu put up a sign in his room stating “The word, the power and the decision rest with the people of Dersim”, which sparked criticism on social media.
Asked if he was feeling isolated because he defended communism, Macoglu told AFP: “To the contrary, there is a lot of sympathy from the people of Turkey.
“If today, even the representatives of bourgeois politics talk about production and cooperatives, this is a win for us.”
Nationally, the Communist Party of Turkey is a marginal party and has no MPs in parliament.
As Ovacik mayor, Macoglu opened a cooperative to promote organic honey and chickpeas whose sales funded university students from poor families.
Macoglu wants to expand his model all around Turkey.
Cihan Durna, of the Ovacik cooperative, praised Macoglu’s production model.
“He has done a lot to develop the town,” he said.
Senem Yerlikaya runs Cuba Cafe in Ovacik which she opened in 2014 because of “similarities between the people of Cuba and Ovacik”.
“He (Macoglu) has done a lot for the people here in the last five years. Mayors are usually very formal but he integrated well with the locals,” she said.
Tunceli province has been battered by a conflict between Turkish forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
The military still has checkpoints around the region, which has mountainous areas where militants hide out.
But locals are happy with Macoglu, and the province is changing.
Mahmut Tutan, who owns a small hotel in Ovacik — which often draws comparisons with the Swiss Alps — said tourists flocked to the region last year.
“He comes from a poor family in that valley,” Tutan said, pointing to a village in the mountains.
“One day the people around him asked him to work for the good of others. That is how he started.”
Metin Kahraman, a wellknown singer and researcher who works on oral history in the region, said he hoped that Macoglu would lead a “positive change”.
“It is a special geography here where Alevis are the majority and observe their faith, so all mayors elected here, regardless of their party, should promote culture, language, literature,” he said.
“That has been neglected so far.”
Turkey’s Alevis adhere to what is usually seen as an offshoot of Shia Islam and make up the biggest religious minority in the mainly Sunni country.
Involved in the communist movement since the mid-1980s, Macoglu said that he didn’t have big dreams — beekeeping is what he wants to do next.
“Honestly, that’s what I want to do the most. If you ask about plans for the coming period, that would be the most important and pragmatic,” he said.
Returning to Turkish politics, he refused to comment on Erdogan or the main opposition party chief Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is from Tunceli.
“Are the capitalists, imperialists on the right path?” he asked. “I think they are not.”