Why promote the ex-Marxist Öcalan as a devout Muslim?
The Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have started negotiating again. Several difficulties lie ahead. In addition to regional political uncertainties and psychological pressures stemming from the harsh debates in domestic politics, there are risks related to the PKK itself. However, we must consider the dominant characters of the leaders at the table.
Today, I’d like to focus on Öcalan in terms of the outcome of the negotiation process. Despite being imprisoned since 1999, Öcalan is still powerful and holds the reins of the PKK both due to its organizational culture and his authoritarian personality.
One factor that will affect the negotiation process will be the personality war of two leaders with big egos. Öcalan owes his power to his 40 years of experience in using systematic violence and cultivating an authoritarian personality. Violence became a part of his personality, making him highly authoritarian and endowing him with power and legitimacy. He simply doesn’t like competition and challenges to his leadership. The history of his organization is filled with the executions and purges of those betraying the leader.
In the 10th year of his leadership, Erdoğan, too, seems to have accepted negotiating with him and also dislikes any challenges to his leadership. The possibility of two such personalities coming to mutual terms will face serious challenges.
Second, Öcalan’s image needs to be recreated in the eyes of the public so as to continue the negotiations, build national consensus and reduce the political pressure on the government. Öcalan’s reputation oscillates between “prophecy” and “devilry.” The government has to transform Öcalan’s reputation, which is caught between two extremes, into a position allowing him to be “eligible to take up a role in the democratic system.” If it cannot accomplish this, negotiations might break down. Thus, the government, aware of this risk, has already been sending messages to the public. For instance, according to the deputy prime minister, “he was a pious kid and used to prayer in the mosque.” Still, it is difficult to promote a fervent Marxist as a good Muslim.
Another risk concerns the uncompromising and clashing ideologies of Erdoğan and Öcalan. The negotiators are competitors and represent cross-border ideologies. Erdoğan frankly believes that Sunni Islam is everyone’s common ground and would like to see its power solve the conflict. As a matter of fact, he thinks he had successful results with respect to Iraqi Kurds and in Syria. On the contrary, Öcalan, as a Kurdish nationalist, is the representative of this belated movement across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Europe.
We’ll be seeing the effects of the rivalry between two strong personalities and two ideologies in the negotiation process.