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Turkish authorities have backed down in the face of big protests in the south-eastern city of Van, reinstating an opposition politician who was disqualified as co-mayor after he defeated the candidate of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party in an election on Sunday.

Van, a bustling city near Turkey’s border with Iran, erupted into celebrations on Wednesday and Thursday after the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Equality and Democracy party (DEM) said its candidate for mayor would after all be given the mandate to govern.

Provincial authorities had previously disqualified DEM candidate Abdullah Zeydan and said he would be replaced as co-mayor by a runner-up for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP).

Zeydan had beaten AKP candidate Abdulahat Arvas by a 28 percentage point margin in Sunday’s race, winning with 55 per cent of the vote, according to the state Anadolu news agency. Overall, DEM won 10 provincial capitals, compared with eight in 2019.

The volte-face came after powerful protests shook Van following Sunday’s municipal elections, in which the AKP endured its worst defeat since it was co-founded by Erdoğan more than 20 years ago.

Erdoğan had vowed not to interfere with the outcome, and his government broadly respected results in major cities such as Istanbul. But fury erupted in Van, home to a large Kurdish population, over the decision to meddle in its election.

“As a result of the resistance of the Kurdish people, our friends and the democratic public, it was decided to give the certificate of election to our Van Metropolitan Municipality co-mayor Abdullah Zeydan,” DEM said in a statement on Wednesday night.

The clashes in Van between police and demonstrators echoed the Gezi Park protests a decade ago, which began in Istanbul but morphed into one of the most severe national public uprisings against Erdoğan since he came to power at the turn of the millennium.

A longtime Van resident described chaotic scenes on Tuesday night. “Everywhere is on fire, everywhere there is the sound of police [tear] gas bombs,” he said, adding that it was “exactly like a war here”.

Cities in Turkey’s south-east have long been flashpoints as the government has repressed Kurdish rights, including through the arrests of public figures, activists and journalists. Erdoğan’s government has also frequently appointed “caretaker” mayors in these cities to replace those elected from DEM’s predecessor party the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP).

Erdoğan has in the past claimed the HDP and some of its politicians were linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a separatist group that has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey and is considered a terrorist group both domestically and by partners including the US.

The government has frequently used sweeping anti-terrorism laws to crack down on civil society. Zeydan, who was previously an HDP MP, was sentenced to jail in 2018 for producing what was described as terrorist propaganda. He was released in 2022.

Selahattin Demirtaş, a former HDP co-chair and a prominent opposition leader, remains in jail even after a 2018 order by the European Court of Human right ordered his release.

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