Giran Özcan
Jun 19 2019

The Kurdish question and the day after the Istanbul rerun

A well-established fact of Turkey's March 31 local elections is that Kurds and supporters of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) - not always synonymous - carried the main opposition party  across the finish line in Ankara, Adana, Mersin, Ankara and Istanbul. 

Dealing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ultra-nationalist allies a resounding defeat was the primary motive behind the HDP strategy of putting its support behind the opposition alliance.

The move was a response to the mid-2015 collapse of a promising ceasefire between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the subsequent destruction of Kurdish towns and cities in the country’s southeast, the invasion of the Kurdish-held northwest Syrian district of Afrin and continuing threats against the Kurds in Syria.

According to recent polls, Ekrem İmamoğlu, who narrowly won the March 31 vote for Istanbul mayor, could extend his margin in the rerun this Sunday. While the 2016 votes on Brexit and the U.S. president showed that polling can be deceptive, in Turkey there is also the added unknown of just how wide İmamoğlu’s winning margin has to be in order to overcome AKP manipulation.

In the run-up to the March 31 Istanbul mayoral election, the AKP must have been certain that the ultra-nationalist vote would be enough to defeat the opposition, so much so that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had no difficulty saying that “there is no such thing as Kurdistan” and telling the HDP to “bugger-off to northern Iraq!”

On the other hand, by simply not insulting them (and, to be fair, by running an almost perfect campaign) İmamoğlu, from the Republican People’s Party (CHP), became more than just the recipient of the Kurdish tactical vote. Nowhere did the HDP’s electoral strategy pay more dividends than in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and economic powerhouse.

The HDP’s principled stance, and the March 31 result, sent two important messages: 1) The AKP will lose without the Kurds; and 2) the CHP cannot win without the Kurds.

How well each side understood these messages may not have a decisive impact on the election rerun in Istanbul next week, but it will be hugely significant for Turkey afterwards.

So when Binali Yıldırım, the AKP candidate in Istanbul, spoke Kurdish (in what sounded like a dialect I have never heard before) during a campaign stop in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır and said a Kurdistan delegate was present at Turkey’s first meeting of parliament, there was near-zero chance it would persuade Kurds to vote AKP in Istanbul. To even think it might is an insult to Kurds’ political consciousness, an offense of which the opposition CHP is also guilty.

A very significant development between the two Istanbul elections is that the lawyers of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed PKK leader, were allowed to visit him on the island prison of İmralı, something the government had arbitrarily and illegally blocked for eight years. While some believe this is another AKP ploy to attract the Kurdish vote in Istanbul, there are others who believe the move transcends the Istanbul election.

So, what happens to the Kurdish question on the day after the Istanbul vote? It is a two-horse race, but the possible post-election scenarios for the country’s most important challenge are manifold. Does İmamoğlu’s election campaign indicate how the CHP wants to engage with the Kurdish issue going forward? Is Yıldırım’s Kurdish sentence in Diyarbakir a mere electoral investment or is the AKP preparing for something more?

Once again Öcalan has declared he is ready and willing to commit to a peaceful solution to the almost four-decade-old conflict. The PKK has declared Öcalan its lead negotiator and that it stands behind his messages.

The one certainty is that the Kurdish political movement is adamant that only a resounding defeat for the AKP can get it to rethink its ultra-nationalist, authoritarian direction.

The Istanbul vote will be settled on June 23, we hope. We will know which of the two candidates gets to clean the beautiful city’s streets, manage its transport system and provide services to its more than 15 million residents. On June 24, however, we will see if either of the two biggest parties in Turkey have any real interest in solving the Kurdish question once and for all.

Reconciliation with the Kurdish people has become the most pivotal aspect in determining the future of Istanbul. A lasting peaceful and political solution to the Kurdish question will go a long way in determining the future of the Republic of Turkey. The two camps fighting it over in Istanbul should keep this in mind.

 

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.