Possible Kurdish split could swing Istanbul vote Erdoğan’s way

(Adds HDP statement and MHP leader's remarks)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said there was a power struggle between the predominantly Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) armed rebels, indicating a possible split in the Kurdish vote that could affect Sunday’s rerun election for a new mayor of Istanbul.

The votes of hundreds of thousands of Kurds living in Istanbul are widely acknowledged to have been pivotal in the March 31 mayoral election, which saw the main secular opposition’s Ekrem İmamoğlu declared winner by a narrow margin. The HDP did not put up its own candidate in the vote and called on Kurds to back İmamoğlu to give Erdoğan’s ruling Islamists a bloody nose. 

But Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), in power since 2002, objected to the result and the electoral authority ordered the vote for Istanbul to be held again. Losing control of the city of 16 million people that produces almost a third of Turkey’s GDP would be a huge blow to Erdoğan, who launched his political career by becoming its mayor in 1994. 

The HDP has called on its supporters to again back İmamoğlu in Sunday’s rerun and leading pollster Konda has put the Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate ahead by 9 percentage points over the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) mayoral candidate Binali Yıldırım, a veteran Erdoğan loyalist and former prime minister.

PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan sent a letter from prison via his lawyers calling on HDP voters to follow a “third way” from the struggle between the ruling and opposition blocs. 

Öcalan has been held largely isolated in a prison on an island in the Marmara Sea since 1999, but his lawyers have been allowed to see him a number of times since May, their first visits in eight years. Despite his imprisonment, the rebel leader still holds huge sway amongst Kurds in Turkey.

Erdoğan appeared in a live interview broadcast both on social media and several television channels on Thursday night.

Asked about Öcalan’s letter, Erdoğan pointed out that the former co-chair of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş – also held in jail – had this week called on voters to support İmamoğlu on Sunday.

“There is a power struggle here. In this power struggle, the one between PKK and HDP wings, there seems to shift toward a power struggle between Öcalan and Demirtaş,” Erdoğan said. “One wing of the PKK supports the CHP candidate, another one says third way.” 

The president and the ruling party see the HDP as the political wing of the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since 1984. The PKK’s military commanders are based in the remote Qandil Mountain in neighbouring northern Iraq, but still recognise Öcalan as their leader.

“Struggling for leadership, Öcalan gives messages to Demirtaş and the mountain. I feel sorry that my Kurdish brothers have been abused,” news site T24 quoted Erdoğan as saying. “As a message to my Kurdish brothers, I tell them do not fall into this trap,” the president said.

Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) allied with the AKP, on Friday said Öcalan's letter was a response to the HDP's "disgraceful support" for İmamoğlu, according to Turkish news site T24.

"It is understood that the terrorist chief, who is serving life imprisonment in Imralı (prison), called for neutrality to interfere with or even block the HDP's exploitation (of the elections)," Bahçeli said.

Pro-government newspapers said Öcalan’s letter was a call for Kurds not to support İmamoğlu on Sunday, but the opposition said it was a last minute ploy to change the outcome of Sunday’s polls. 

Öcalan’s lawyers released the jailed leader’s letter on Friday, which said the HDP should abide by what he called the “third way”, but he did not expressly call on Kurdish voters not to back İmamoğlu in the Istanbul mayoral election. The lawyers said there would be more hopeful messages to come from Öcalan focused on a solution to the Kurdish conflict, in which some 40,000 people have been killed.

Meanwhile the charismatic former HDP leader Demirtaş said claims of talks between the government and Öcalan to sway the Istanbul vote were “totally manipulative and unfounded”, he said in an interview published by the Yeni Yaşam news site on Friday. 

The pro-Kurdish HDP also issued a statement saying it had not changed it election strategy.

“Mr. Öcalan’s statement and the policies the HDP has pursued until now overlap with one another. It is out of the question for there to be any change in the HDP’s election strategy and tactical steps in the Istanbul election,” it said. 

The HDP said Öcalan’s statement had a historical meaning and depth that went beyond day-to-day politics.

“What the PKK or HDP said do not matter to us. Secondly, we are heading to the Istanbul election. More Kurdish fellow citizens live in Istanbul than in Diyarbakır. Therefore, as a candidate for mayor, I want support from my Kurdish countrymen,” the AKP’s mayoral candidate Yıldırım said on Friday.