Will a last-minute Kurdish move help Erdoğan in Istanbul polls?

Will a last-minute Kurdish move help Erdoğan in Istanbul polls?


Some 10 million Istanbul residents will head to ballot boxes for the rerun elections on June 23 to elect the new mayor of Turkey’s largest metropolis Istanbul. Latest opinion polls suggest that the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) nominee Ekrem İmamoğlu is ahead of Binali Yıldırım of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A common understanding out of the surveys of these polls suggests that İmamoğlu will have a two to three point advantage against his rival.

In a statement to foreign journalists on June 20, President and AKP chairman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan implied that İmamoğlu may win the Istanbul elections but he will be in a predicament because his party controls the municipal assembly and has 25 district mayors out of 39 in the city.

A letter signed by the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, which calls on Kurdish voters to stay neutral in the upcoming elections should be read within this context. A revisit to the Kurdish card by the AKP came as the party officials realized that there is no chance for Yıldırım to close the gap with İmamoğlu.

As a matter of fact, the signs of this new play have begun to be observed in the past months as Öcalan was allowed to meet his lawyers after an eight-year hiatus. Yıldırım’s visit to the southeastern province of Diyarbakır where he greeted a local crowd in Kurdish and spoke of “Kurdistan” should be counted as additional evidence to this end.

There are speculations in Ankara that the AKP had first approached Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) who has been behind bars since late 2017 over terror charges, to issue a call for the HDP voters to remain neutral in the Istanbul polls. In a clear refusal of this proposal, Demirtaş said, “We believe that İmamoğlu’s narrative should be supported. Because we are beautiful when together. Without the HDP, or by excluding the HDP, nothing will be beautiful enough.” He also urged the AKP in an indirect way that forcing the HDP will not yield a result.

On June 19, a crowded delegation was reportedly taken to İmralı Island where Öcalan is serving a life sentence. On June 20, an academic, Ali Kemal Özcan, held a press conference and argued that Öcalan handed him a letter about the main actual developments. Two things were attention-drawing in this scenario: First, the statement was made by a no-name academic instead of Öcalan’s lawyers, and second, it was reported by Turkey’s Anadolu Agency.

HDP spokespeople have immediately announced that their position with regards to Sunday’s vote has not changed, meaning they will back İmamoğlu.

Eventually, all these seem to have been operating within the knowledge of the AKP government with the objective of persuading the Kurdish voters not to vote on Sunday so that Yıldırım is able to win Istanbul.

However, there are serious question marks about this move, both ethically and politically.

When asked about this statement of Öcalan in a TV interview late June 20, Erdoğan preferred to simplify the situation as a power struggle between Öcalan and Demirtaş which also includes the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq and its European branches.

“Öcalan does not want to lose his power against any of these,” Erdoğan said, continuing his claims that a wing within the CHP is the one that supports the PKK. “Thank God, Mr. Binali has nothing to do with all these. The only alliance we have is with the MHP [Nationalist Movement Party],” he said.

Politically, seeing Öcalan, a convicted terrorist leader, and Demirtaş, a politician and the former leader of a legitimate political party, equal is wrong. More importantly, if Öcalan is today able to communicate with the outside world and therefore carrying out what Erdoğan calls a power struggle, he is doing all these with the permission and the means of the state. And this adds yet another example of a years-long exclusion and isolation of the legitimate representatives of Kurdish politics as the main reason behind the unhealthy political landscape.

In a statement on June 21, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli reiterated his commitment to the continuation of his party’s alliance with the AKP despite the Öcalan move. He seemed not so much disturbed on Öcalan’s intervention, proving rumors that he had been given information beforehand.

This move also sparks ethical problems. Erdoğan and many AKP officials have long been using a narrative that blamed all of their political rivals as being in cooperation with multiple terror organizations. (That’s why Yıldırım paid a visit to Milli Gazete newspaper – a media outlet of the Felicity Party (SP) - and apologized to SP supporters for such accusations.)

This column has many times in the past underlined that demonizing and accusing politicians as terror supporters are unethical and dangerous to a stable public order. By putting Öcalan forward for political gains, the AKP is committing yet another big mistake and drawing a picture that it is full of inconsistencies.

For many experts, this move of the AKP is nothing but a show of desperation. At the end of the day, Öcalan may be satisfied with his move as he still has a role to play and could bring his calls for a new peace process back to the agenda. The HDP has shown once again that it continues to stand with Demirtaş and its indirect cooperation with the CHP- İYİ (Good) Party alliance.

The Sunday poll results will show whether or not this last-minute Öcalan move will bring about the title to the AKP’s Yıldırım.