MARDIN, TURKEY - The mix of fury and disappointment among residents was palpable inside a cafe in the southeastern Turkish city of Mardin after the government replaced the popular mayor with a trustee.
One year on from local elections, 40 out of 65 municipalities won by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) are now under the control of government-appointed trustees.
In Mardin, the HDP's Ahmet Turk won 56.2 percent of the vote in March 2019. But in August he was one of the first, along with those in nearby Diyarbakir and Van, to be removed and replaced by the government.
Six months after the move, residents in Mardin, where the governor now runs the city of over 800,000 people, were especially critical of a lack of service and development.
"No one bothers, no one wants to do anything, and no one raises their voice. We're speaking to you now — who knows what will happen to us tomorrow?" cafe manager Firat Kayatar told AFP during a visit late February.
"They may as well not hold elections in the southeast because they had two elections, and after both they appointed trustees," said Kayatar, who lives in the old city.
"No one listens anyway," one of the cafe's customers, Abdulaziz, 57, chipped in. "We can't complain to anyone. [The governor] brings bananas but we need bread."
Another man nearby who did not give his name said young people went to university but were unable to find a job.
"This is the problem Mardin faces, too," he said.
The party described the mayors' removals as an "attack" on Kurds but the government has accused the HDP of links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Kurds make up around 20 percent of Turkey's overall population.
The HDP accused Ankara last month of making it "even harder for the Kurds to fight the coronavirus" through the "repression of Kurdish democratic institutions, their municipalities in particular."
Such actions are not new. Ankara removed 95 HDP mayors after the party won 102 municipalities in 2014.
"When it comes to the HDP, just slapping trumped-up terror charges is the easiest way to go and it's just a political attempt to destroy their legitimacy," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Accusation against PKK
The chairman in Mardin for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) defended the government's actions, accusing the PKK of using the HDP mayors to obtain control.
"In fact these mayors were Qandil representatives," Faruk Kilic said, referring to where the PKK leadership and rear bases are located in a mountainous region in Iraq.
"None of the mayors made statements of their own independent will," Kilic added, a claim the HDP strongly denies.
The Turkish government has repeatedly accused the HDP mayors of using the municipalities' money to support the PKK, or hiring relatives of PKK militants.
The interior ministry claimed some mayors attended political rallies, demonstrations and even funerals of PKK militants.
The HDP says 21 of its mayors are behind bars.
The PKK has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, and the group is blacklisted as a terror organization by Ankara and its Western allies.
The government's aim was to "collapse any distinction between the HDP, a legal party playing by the rules of the game in parliament and democratically elected representatives from this party, and an armed organization," HRW's Sinclair-Webb said.
'Economic' reason for dismissals?
Veteran Kurdish politician Turk was acquitted in February in one case cited against him when he was removed as mayor of Mardin the first time in 2016.
The AKP's Kilic said if mayors were later acquitted on the charges against them, they would return to their posts, but added "there's evidence against many" charged.
Eren Keskin, of the Ankara-based Human Rights Association (IHD), believed there was an "economic" motive to the dismissals.
"The first municipalities they appointed a trustee for — Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van — are provinces that are really open to economic development," Keskin said.
Her claim was supported by HDP deputy chairman Saruhan Oluc, who said the government "keeps itself strong through the income and profit from local administrations."
Oluc accused the government of handing out money and favors to its allies as well as companies and foundations close to it through the municipalities' coffers.