Can Öcalan risk Erdoğan’s win?

Can Öcalan risk Erdoğan’s win?

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters yesterday that he was going to have a “final meeting” with President Abdullah Gül before deciding on the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) official candidate for the elections, the first round of which will be held on Aug. 10.

Following his address to the AKP party group on June 24, it became almost certain that Erdoğan wants to stand as the candidate, further diminishing Gül’s chance for a second five-year term. So why are they having this meeting? Just out of politeness?

It seems that Erdoğan still needs time to make his candidacy official, due to his contingency planning.
For some, when the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) jointly backed the candidacy of Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the former secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the key position held by the Kurds was weakened. This is because the mostly urban voters of both parties would not be likely to cut their summer holidays to return to their home towns in order to vote for İhsanoğlu, who they know little about. Erdoğan, who recently saw polls carried out for the AKP and is happy with the forecast of at least 52 percent, would therefore start placing less importance on Kurdish votes and would decided to go for Çankaya anyway.

For others, however, the naming of İhsanoğlu - who is actually also known as a respectable name outside Turkey - finally gave the opposition a plausible alternative to Erdoğan, after many long years. That actually strengthened the role of Kurdish votes for the second round. When asked, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır last weekend that he also believes Kurdish voters hold a key position, which also places extra responsibility on their shoulders: Will they join the bloc to keep a parliamentary democracy and try to advance it, or will they open the path for Erdoğan, who promises more centralized power in his own hands.

Erdoğan’s move to open another Kurdish “package” - although it does not include many of the HDP’s demands - at Parliament before it goes into a recess by this weekend, shows that he also recognizes the importance of Kurdish votes.

The co-chairman of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş told reporters that his party would decide on its candidate - admitting that his name is much spoken of for the role - during an executive committee meeting this weekend. Therefore, this should be clear before the AK Parti announces its candidate on July 1.

If the HDP comes up with a strong candidate like Demirtaş, this will mean that the Kurds are trying to keep Erdoğan below the 50 percent necessary to win in the first round. If they manage to do that, it will open the possibility of bargaining in the second round over more autonomy and the prison conditions of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, if the HDP comes up with a relatively weaker candidate (such as a name from the Turkish left), or decides not to motivate its grassroots to go to polls, it could reduce Kurdish participation in the elections and bring Erdoğan closer to a win in the first round.

This picture makes the meeting that is set to take place today, June 26, even more crucial. It is a meeting between an HDP delegation and Öcalan at İmralı Island Prison, taking place with special permission from the Justice Ministry. Demirtaş has told reporters that whatever the delegation hears from Öcalan will have an effect on the HDP’s presidential candidate decision over the weekend.

In another words, if Öcalan - who is currently in continuous contact with National Intelligence Organization (MİT) head Hakan Fidan on behalf of Erdoğan - tells the HDP delegation that Erdoğan staying in power is a guarantee for the continuation of the dialogue process and his own possible release, and should thus not be risked by a strong HDP candidate, it would be a relief for Erdoğan. If not, if Erdoğan sees the first round as being at risk, he may either choose to give more promises to the Kurds, or - a low probability - choose to stay as prime minister.

It seems that the HDP-Öcalan meeting will be as important as the Erdoğan-Gül meeting for Erdoğan’s final decision on July 1.