Turkey’s Supreme Election Council ruled today to re-run Istanbul’s mayoral election, five weeks after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party lost the original vote to the country’s main opposition party. Also today, Erdogan allowed Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to convey a statement to the public for the first time in four years. Together, the two moves signify Erdogan’s intention to recapture Istanbul by pacifying the city’s Kurdish opposition.
Erdogan’s ruling party lost the mayorship of Istanbul for the first time in 25 years during Turkey’s March 31 local elections. He initially resigned himself to this outcome, and allowed the mayor-elect to take up his position. However, Erdogan’s ultranationalist coalition partners – as well as business cronies who feed off of Istanbul’s municipal spoils – have been lobbying to re-run the elections. The Supreme Election Council, stacked with Erdogan loyalists, has now announced new elections to be held in June.
Erdogan also allowed PKK leader Ocalan to make his first public statement in four years. Ankara has barred Ocalan from seeing his lawyers since 2011, and prevented Kurdish parliamentarians from visiting him since 2015, following the escalation of fighting between Turkish troops and the PKK. Ocalan’s last visitor, his brother, was allowed to see him in 2016. Nearly 3,000 Kurdish prisoners in Turkey, including lawmakers, have been on a hunger strike since November 2018 to protest Ocalan’s isolation. Many of them reached the verge of death this month. Erdogan’s immediate motive for allowing Ocalan’s public statement appears to be preventing these deaths. Indeed, Ocalan’s statement explicitly called on the prisoners to end their hunger strike.
Yet coinciding with the impending re-run of Istanbul’s election, Ocalan’s statement also carries a broader message from Erdogan to the Kurds. Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) played a decisive role in helping the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), secure key victories over Erdogan’s party on March 31 – especially in Istanbul, home to millions of Kurds. With a new election now set for the summer, Erdogan is seeking to discourage Kurdish voters from lending tactical support to the CHP candidate. In his statement, Ocalan emphasized the need for “democratic negotiations” with the Turkish state – effectively a call for further engagement with Erdogan.
Critically, Ocalan’s statement addressed not only Turkey’s Kurds, but also Syrian Kurds who dominate the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Washington’s partner in the war against the Islamic State in Syria. The Kurds in the SDF follow the PKK’s ideology and revere Ocalan as their leader, a key reason for Turkey’s war against them since 2016. As negotiations intensify over a settlement to the Turkish-SDF conflict, Ocalan’s statement has asked Syrian Kurds to mind “Turkey’s sensibilities.”
Today’s decision to re-run Istanbul’s election has crushed the hopes of millions, Turks and Kurds alike, who saw the March 31 election as an opportunity to reverse Turkey’s democratic backsliding. With this decision, Erdogan has reduced Ocalan’s call for “democratic negotiations” into an election ploy. Ultimately, Turkey’s strongman might end up losing Istanbul again, and botch yet another opportunity to normalize relations with the Kurds at home and abroad.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Merve Tahiroglu is a research analyst. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @MerveTahiroglu. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.