Failure of Öcalan letter shows new direction for Turkey’s Kurds

Two days before the Istanbul mayoral rerun election on June 23, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency announced that Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had written a letter urging the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to remain neutral in the coming vote. 

Essentially dismissed by the HDP, Öcalan’s letter and how key political figures like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted to it still created a major political stir with great symbolic meaning.

To begin with, AA’s announcement of Öcalan’s letter was not an ordinary journalistic affair. Behind the announcement was the state’s decision to have Öcalan involved in an ongoing election campaign.

By informing the public via its official news agency, the state expected people would be duly informed on Öcalan’s opinions, leaving no discussion of authenticity.

Of course, shortly after the letter’s release, sources close to the government interpreted it to mean that Öcalan was advising Kurds not to vote for Ekrem İmamoğlu, the main opposition candidate, but instead remain neutral, basically asking them to boycott.

Erdoğan publicly referred to Öcalan’s letter in his remarks on the day before the vote -- a highly unusual moment in which a sitting president used the words of an enemy of the state, long known as the “baby killer,” to influence voters. According to Erdoğan, Öcalan clearly wanted Kurds not to support İmamoğlu.

Erdoğan said the letter pointed to a leadership competition between Öcalan and Selahattin Demirtaş, the jailed former HDP leader, and that Öcalan’s message was meant to remind the HDP to stick to its own political orientation rather than support any other party. 

The rise of Öcalan as a legitimate political actor able to influence Kurdish voters could be interpreted as a critical development in which the Turkish state has de facto recognised him as the leader of the country’s Kurds. 

Yet Turkish officials, including Erdoğan, publicly asked Kurds to follow Öcalan, not Demirtaş, which suggests the state sees Demirtaş as more of a threat than the jailed leader of the PKK, which has led an armed insurgency in Turkey’s southeast since 1984 and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the EU. 

With Demirtaş, Kurdish politics has received considerable positive attention from other sectors of Turkish society. Under Demirtaş’s leadership, the Kurdish political project has succeeded in becoming a nationwide organisation at the expense of Erdoğan.

But, what was Öcalan’s intention in the letter? Did he really want Kurds to stay neutral, which would favor Erdoğan’s ruling party? Or perhaps the government’s interpretation of Öcalan’s letter was incorrect.

Given the ambiguous language of the letter, which is part of Öcalan’s personal style, it is not easy to comment on its message. Thus, it is first up to the Kurdish political leaders to inform the public on the main intention behind the letter.

So far, Kurdish leaders have commented very ambiguously on the letter, providing little detail about the gist of the message. One gets the impression that Kurdish leaders want to strategically maintain a certain ambiguity when it comes to Öcalan’s letter.

In the meantime, the letter incident has demonstrated that there is a growing new dynamic in Turkish politics on the Kurdish issue. Many Turks are ready to embrace Kurdish politics as represented by new leaders like Demirtaş, whereas they remain vehemently against any process with Öcalan. The Turkish public has given a strong positive signal to Demirtaş while holding onto its very negative perception of Öcalan.

This new dynamic has within it a shift that it is difficult, even impossible for many Kurds to contemplate: that a new leader like Demirtaş could challenge Öcalan and the PKK.



© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.