AA reports Öcalan called on HDP to remain unbiased in Istanbul election

(Updated with statement from Öcalan's lawyers in fifth)

Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has sent a letter from his internment in İmralı Prison calling on Turkey’s most influential pro-Kurdish party not to take sides in the crucial Istanbul election rerun on Sunday, Turkey’s state news agency has said.

“Terrorist chief Abdullah Öcalan, in a statement from İmralı Prison, has called on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to remain unbiased in the Istanbul election”, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency tweeted on Thursday evening.

“The understanding of a democratic coalition embodied in the HDP should not take sides or be party to the current electoral debates”, Anadolu quoted Öcalan as saying in another tweet.

“The importance of a democratic coalition is in its non-engagement in dichotomies and insistence on a non-partisan line in elections”, Anadolu continued in a third tweet quoting Öcalan's letter.

Asrın, the law firm representing Öcalan, said it would release a detailed statement on the letter in a tweet on Thursday evening.

The state news agency referred to the PKK leader as “terrorist chief” in all its tweets, reflecting Turkey’s designation of the militant group, which has fought for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey since the 1980s, as a terrorist group.

However, Öcalan and the PKK are viewed as important actors in the Kurdish political movement by many Kurds in Turkey and neighbouring countries.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) aggressively pushed the line that the opposition Nation Alliance had allied itself with “terrorists” by accepting tacit support from the pro-Kurdish HDP in the March 31 local elections.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the main proponent of that line before March 31, took a backseat throughout much of the campaign for the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election, a crucial contest that the AKP will have a second chance at after appealing its loss in the first vote.

That vote and other significant opposition victories on March 31 are widely thought to have been swung by the millions of Kurdish voters encouraged by the HDP to cast their voters strategically and back the opposition alliance in constituencies where the party refrained from running candidates.

So, when Öcalan’s lawyers announced in early May that they had been allowed to meet the PKK leader for the first time in eight years, many interpreted the lifting of the ban as a move by the ruling party towards winning back Kurdish votes.

Thursday’s statement from Öcalan came days after Selahattin Demirtaş, a jailed former HDP co-chair and still a highly influential figure in the party, pledged his support to the opposition candidate for Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu.

In the run up to the March 31 elections, Demirtaş did not specifically call for support for the opposition candidate, but he encouraged HDP voters to go to the ballot boxes, which was largely understood as a signal to vote for Imamoglu.

Okan Müderrisoğlu, a columnist for the pro-government daily Sabah, anticipated the statement from Öcalan in a column on Thursday morning, in which he said the PKK leader’s lawyers should immediately share an up-to-date comment from Öcalan declaring his neutrality, if not support for the ruling party.

In a tweet posted on Thursday, minutes before Anadolu reported on Öcalan’s statement, the HDP called ont its supporters to "protect the votes" just as they did on March 31. The tweet does not explicitly call for support for the opposition candidate but asks supporters to vote for “democracy and the national will” to win.

Speaking during a live interview on Thursday night, Erdoğan said the letter represented a "power struggle" between the HDP and PKK. Öcalan had clashed not only with Demirtaş but also active with PKK leaders, and had issued "strong statements" on the subject, Erdoğan said.