DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) - Actor Kemal Ulusoy and the rest of his Kurdish theatre group lost their jobs along with thousands of others in southeast Turkey after the state seized control of about 100 town councils won by the main pro-Kurdish party at the last local elections.
Voters go to the polls again on Sunday but Ulusoy says the municipal elections are just another performance staged by authorities, after President Tayyip Erdogan warned that the elected officials may again be replaced by state appointees.
“What we are seeing is not democracy,” said Ulusoy, who has performed plays in Kurdish for nearly 30 years. “An election is only held as a formality, to give him the appearance of legitimacy. He can still do what he wants.”
Kurds make up about a fifth of Turkey’s 82 million population. The southeast, mainly Kurdish, has borne the brunt of a three-decades-old conflict between the state and autonomy-seeking PKK militants that has killed more than 40,000 people.
Erdogan, who has been in power for 16 years, says the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has ties with the outlawed militant group. The HDP denies links to the PKK.
The HDP, which has strong support in the southeast, hopes to regain control of municipalities seized by the state in 2016, about two years after the last local elections in 2014. State officials known as kayyums were appointed to run the councils.
But Erdogan has said kayyums may be appointed again if new mayors, like their predecessors, are deemed to have ties to the militants.
The 31 actors in the municipal theatre in the city of Diyarbakir are among 15,000 council workers who the HDP says lost their jobs after kayyums were appointed.
“This led to spectacular destruction, injustice and oppression in Diyarbakir in art and culture, as it did in every area of society,” said Ulusoy, who has set up a new theatre with colleagues.
His bleak outlook was shared by HDP supporters among tens of thousands of people marking the Kurdish Newroz spring celebration in Diyarbakir who were fiercely critical of state security measures and Erdogan’s election campaigning.
“The president uses very divisive language. Anyone who doesn’t support him is painted as a traitor,” said Geylani Alpay, 63, complaining about his vehicle being searched three times on his journey to the Newroz celebrations.
Nearby, thousands of young people linked hands and danced to Kurdish music blaring from loudspeakers, while others waved red, yellow and green HDP flags.
The pro-Kurdish party has won the last three parliamentary elections since 2015 comfortably in Diyarbakir and much of the southeast, and Erdogan’s AK Party is their only serious rival in the region.
AK Party supporters say the last two years in Diyarbakir under state-appointed mayor Cumali Atilla has brought greater security and improved services after 1.25 billion lira ($224 million) of investments in roads and parks.
“We can sit in the park in the evenings with our wives. We couldn’t do that in the past because it was too dangerous,” said Yilmaz Polat, 37, a cotton farmer.
The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, took up arms in 1984 and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union. An explosion of violence after a two-year peace process collapsed in 2015 has killed 4,280 people, according to International Crisis Group data.
Diyarbakir’s historic Sur district was devastated in the fighting but concrete buildings are now rising in the area and militant violence has dwindled after sustained military operations.
Extensive building of highways, apartment blocks and shopping malls has transformed the appearance of the city.
Cevdet Nasiranli, the AK Party candidate for the city’s Kayapinar district, said the situation could deteriorate if the HDP wins. “It is a vote on peace and confidence,” he said.
HDP mayoral candidate Selcuk Mizrakli, a former surgeon, said all the state-run municipality had done was carry out HDP projects for which financing had previously been withheld.
He said his party’s campaign was hampered by a lack of coverage by an overwhelmingly pro-government media and by security forces which he said harassed HDP campaigners.
“There is a society of fear in Turkey,” he said. “The state is behind concrete walls and in armoured vehicles.”
Nearly 100 mayors and thousands of party members have been jailed in a crackdown after a 2016 attempted coup which Ankara blames on a U.S.-based Islamic cleric. The United States and European Union have voiced concern about the crackdown.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said 178 current election candidates are being investigated over alleged PKK links. It was not clear where these candidates were running for office.
The election has also focused attention on a hunger strike by HDP lawmaker Leyla Guven. She is demanding an end to the isolation of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who had a key role in the peace process and is revered by many Kurdish voters.
Guven has refused food for more than four months, surviving on sugar, water and vitamins and losing 15 kg during her protest, her daughter said.
Guven faces up to 31 years in jail on terrorism-related charges over her criticism of Turkey’s incursion into Syria’s Afrin region.
“We are prepared to face death,” Guven told Reuters, speaking in discomfort and with her eyes closed as she lay in bed at her Diyarbakir home.
The HDP has called on the government to respond to what it says are thousands of people, mostly prison inmates, who are on hunger strike along with Guven, also calling for an end to Ocalan’s isolation. In the protest, four people have committed suicide in Turkish jails, it said.
The party also highlighted recent measures targeting Kurdish culture, citing closures of Kurdish associations, broadcasters and the destruction of HDP-erected statues.
Authorities in the city of Adana last month banned a theatre festival in which Ulusoy’s Amed City Theatre group - set up in 2017 by those who lost their council theatre jobs - was to take part.
The theatre’s repertoire includes world classics, from writers such as Moliere, as well Kurdish plays. Ulusoy said its focus was more on comedy, steering clear of the serious themes that have shaped the southeast’s recent history.
“Rather than making people face pain, tragedy and drama, society wants to relax, laugh - a sort of rehabilitation.”
Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Pravin Char