DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY - In Turkey, the removal of mayors accused of supporting the PKK Kurdish rebel group, and the PKK's targeting of their government-appointed replacements are prompting growing concerns about democracy in the country’s southeastern, predominantly Kurdish region.
A religious ceremony gives Bilal Ozkan, the state-appointed trustee, or mayor, a chance to meet the people of Diyarbakir’s Sur district. The image of the Turkish flag, once all but invisible in this stronghold of Kurdish nationalism, now symbolizes Ozkan’s rule.
He was appointed by the interior ministry after Sur’s elected mayor was accused of supporting the Kurdish separatist group PKK. Tight security accompanies Ozkan wherever he goes, with the PKK declaring him a target. Ozkan says he is undaunted by the threat.
Let us say that there is an assassination, the state would never give up, he says. If any appointed mayor dies, perhaps in couple of hours another state employee will come and take over. There is no ground for the terrorists and other plotters to have hope. He says he feels extremely safe in his homeland, in his country.
The PKK has started assassinating local members of the ruling AKP Party in response to the more than 20 elected mayors removed from office. The killings have been strongly condemned by Turkey' pro-Kurdish HDP party. But the HDP’s parliamentary group leader, Idris Baluken, warns of dangerous consequences if the policy of removing mayors continues.
He says Kurdish people are full of anger against this operation against mayors. There is a big energy gathering. Just like gas in a mine, it awaits a flame that would erupt into a societal explosion. The AKP's dangerous policies can result in much bigger tension and much more serious reaction, Baluken says.
Despite such warnings, the co-mayors of Diyarbakir were arrested this week on charges of supporting terrorism. But Sur trustee Ozkan insists there is no need to win over the people.
He says there is a high percentage of support by ordinary citizens and no resistance on their part. The terrorists are the only ones who do not want the trutees work to be carried forward, he says.
Ozkan is promising a major restoration program to revitalize tourism, devastated by months of fighting between the government and Kurdish rebels in Sur. Some people who fled the fighting are returning, but there is little expectation that peace is close at hand as this internet cafe owner explains.
“He says, we are not expecting anything. There is nothing here. There is no hope. There is no expectation things will improve. There is now war, civil war. Wherever you look you see an incident, a clash, bombs exploding, people get killed. "Only Allah knows how this will end," he said.
For many people in Sur who have seen so much violence, it appears peace remains illusive.