Ankara, Turkey – As local election day looms on Sunday, voting for mayors and municipal councils has an added significance for one corner of Turkey.
The Kurdish-majority southeast has seen nearly a hundred mayors removed from office in recent years and replaced with government-appointed trustees known as “kayyum”.
While this move has widely been decried as an affront to democracy, some local residents have said the trustees have brought improved services and greater security to the region.
The disbarred mayors all belonged to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and were forced out after peace talks between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down in July 2015. Ankara claimed they were funnelling public resources to the group, which is deemed a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West.
Hundreds of HDP officials have also been thrown in prison, including the party’s then co-leader Selahattin Demirtas.
Throughout the campaign for Sunday’s vote, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that no candidates with links to terrorist groups would be allowed to take office, a threat widely seen as being aimed at the HDP.
“The kayyum has worked very hard here,” said one businessman from the southeastern city of Van. A supporter of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the main rival to the HDP in the southeast, he asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted by the PKK.
“There has been a visible improvement in services – cultural activities, roads, social activities, all kinds of things. Before, the HDP provided no services to us.”
While the HDP denies any link to the PKK, the claim that HDP-run councils lent support to the PKK was heightened in late 2015 when months-long curfews were imposed on cities, towns and villages as security forces sought to oust PKK fighters. According to the International Crisis Group, around 4,300 people were killed in the violence.
The government has alleged that the fighters used municipal diggers to build defences and plant IEDs.
“Everyone here knows what they did with the money,” said the businessman. “They brought people and companies in from other cities to do work we were capable of doing ourselves. Were they passing on funds to the terrorists? We don’t know but it seems likely.”
AKP officials in the region say their oversight of municipalities has seen a vast improvement in facilities for locals.
Akif Gur, the party’s branch chairman for the city of Batman, said those appointed by Ankara had created a greater impact than the HDP and its predecessors had since the late 1990s.
“In the last two-and-a-half years the kayyum has done more than they had done in the previous 20 years,” he said. “Services such as street-cleaning, parks and social centres have all seen major improvements. We built a new cultural centre in Batman.”
The new authority had also improved security for voters during election periods, Gur said. “Especially in the 1990s, there was a lot of pressure on people to manipulate their votes. Now they’re free to vote how they want.
Backtracking on Kurdish projects
“This election campaign has been much more comfortable. There’s no problem reaching people and there’s a sense of greater security. In the past the campaign with the opposition was more tense but now it’s about projects rather than ideology.”
Defending the removal of the HDP’s mayors, Gur said they had been shown to have spent resources on “criminal activities”. He added: “The same thing would happen anywhere else in the world, the result would be the same. Being an elected official does not give you immunity or the right to commit a crime.”
Others say the Ankara-appointed trustees have overseen a backtracking on Kurdish cultural and linguistic projects.
Deniz Tuzun, 28, was an actor with a municipal theatre group in Batman when a kayyum was appointed in November 2016 and the company was closed down.
“They’ve made cosmetic changes to the city but the deep-rooted problems haven’t been solved he said. “They haven’t created new projects, just completed the ones the HDP municipality was doing already.”
He will vote for the HDP’s candidate on Sunday and is hoping that if the AKP lose major cities in western Turkey “they will have a bigger problem” and not place a kayyum in office in the event of an HDP win.
Meanwhile, the pro-AKP businessman from Van says he has become disillusioned with the party in recent months. “I would prefer it if I could vote for the kayyum we have now rather than the guy they’ve got as a candidate,” he said. “In my heart I know the system isn’t democratic but when I look at what he’s done I would like the chance to vote for him.”