Abdullah Ocalan's return to public discourse could be a vote-winning strategy for Erdogan's ruling party

Allowing the jailed Kurdish rebel leader to release statements before the Istanbul election rerun is a smart and calculated move

Cheering supporters hold posters of the imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in southeastern Turkey. AP
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At a press conference in Istanbul earlier this week, a group of lawyers for the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan read out a statement: "Comrades who have committed themselves to hunger strikes and death fasts, I expect you to end your protest."

These words brought to an end hunger strikes being held by thousands of prisoners in Turkey against the incarceration and isolation of Ocalan, a founding member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Captured in Kenya while on the run, by Turkish commandos 20 years ago, Ocalan was quickly sentenced to death for treason and separatism. From 1999 to 2009, he was held as the sole prisoner on Imrali island, in the Sea of Marmara.

To aid its bid to become a member of the European Union, Turkey outlawed the death penalty in 2002. Accordingly, Ocalan’s death sentence was commuted to one of life in prison. His solitary confinement also ended in 1999, when he was moved to a new facility on the island that housed other PKK prisoners. However, Ocalan had been denied access to legal counsel for the past eight years.

Media reports were quick to link this statement to the May decision of Turkey's election board to rerun the Istanbul mayoral election, in which president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) narrowly lost to the Republican People's Party (CHP). The new ballot will be held on June 23, and Kurdish votes in the capital could help swing the result back towards the AKP.

The statement was the second released by Ocalan, via his lawyers, this month. The first, three weeks earlier, was equally significant. The reappearance of Ocalan in public life appears to be an attempt by the Turkish president and his party to solve a domestic and foreign-policy problem at the same time.

When, at the start of this month, Ocalan was finally allowed to meet with lawyers, he released a statement about the Kurdish-led, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. It said that “the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspective. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”

Those words were, no doubt, carefully chosen to allow room for negotiations, but they appear to indicate a preference for limited Kurdish autonomy within the Syrian system – a goal for Syria’s Kurds for many years, until the civil war changed everything.

They also seem to suggest that the SDF should not maintain troops near the border – that the “constitutional guarantees”, which could be offered by Damascus to the Syrian Kurds, would be sufficient.

Turkey will be comfortable with the thrust of this language: a focus on negotiation rather than conflict, and a preference for Syria’s Kurdish population to respect the nation’s territorial integrity. (Although some might wonder if Mr Erdogan, who has pushed his troops into Syrian territory, intends to do the same.)

If the first statement opens the door to some negotiation over the SDF's role on the Turkish-Syrian border, the second was more focused on domestic issues.

Mr Erdogan appears to be showing flexibility on the “Kurdish question” and may be seeking to position himself as peacemaker. It would be a smart – if cynical – move, because there is a chance for a political realignment between Kurdish voters and the AKP that could benefit both sides. Allowing the Turkish Kurds’ most prominent leader access to lawyers – and, therefore, to the wider world – could well be a first step.

Turkish party politics is in flux. The last two public ballots – the local elections in March and last July’s general election – were not fought between single political parties, but alliances.

Mr Erdogan's AKP allied with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while the CHP, the main opposition, joined forces with a handful of smaller parties. Neither is a stable alliance.

The electoral losses experienced in March exposed rifts between the AKP and MHP, with a former AKP prime minister publicly condemning the alliance as damaging.

However, the opposition Nation Alliance is even more fragile. In the most recent election, the CHP chose to ally itself with both the right-wing ultra-nationalist Good Party and the Islamist Felicity Party.

Into this mix falls the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the largest pro-Kurdish group. The HDP joined neither alliance, but supported the opposition grouping. Doing so put it in an odd position: a party supportive of Kurdish national aspirations backing an alliance with a party that is doggedly Turkish nationalist.

Having the main pro-Kurdish party as a political outsider also presents an opportunity for the AKP. Turkey’s Kurdish minority is sometimes thought of as homogenous, but the community, while predominantly based in the south-east of the country, is spread across Turkey. The city with the largest Kurdish population is, in fact, Istanbul. Although many Kurds support pro-Kurdish parties, such as the HDP, and many more care deeply about Kurdish rights, those are not always the primary political motivators.

In fact, Kurdish voters supported the AKP while it pursued peace talks with the PKK in the 2000s, and it was Mr Erdogan who brought in changes, allowing the Kurdish language to be taught in schools and universities.

The split between many Kurdish voters and the AKP only came in 2015, after a peace process overseen by the AKP collapsed, resulting in PKK attacks and a government crackdown. It was no coincidence that at the next general election, held a few months later, the HDP passed the 10 per cent threshold and was elected to parliament for the first time.

So, there is a chance that Kurdish voters could be wooed back to the AKP, and it is possible the party sees the rerun of the Istanbul election as a first test of this plan.

Mr Erdogan's self-serving gambit of allowing Ocalan to make public statements in return for the possibility of Kurdish votes in Istanbul could usher in long-term benefits for the Kurdish minority and, possibly the wider Kurdish movement.

If it succeeds and the AKP retakes Istanbul, the party might try the same thing on a wider scale, ahead of the next general election. Given that this is scheduled for 2023, there is plenty of time to strategise. This outcome could mean offering the Kurdish community more political concessions and seeking a peaceful approach to the SDF, across the border. On the other hand, if the AKP loses Istanbul, it might try something else entirely.

Many Kurds will be happy to hear Ocalan’s words, even if they are suspicious of Mr Erdogan’s motives. At the end of next month, they will give their verdict.