FOR EIGHT years, Turkey’s public enemy number one, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), had not been allowed to meet his lawyers. Hundreds of other Kurdish inmates went on hunger strike in late 2018 to demand an end to his isolation. At least eight committed suicide. The blackout ended on May 2nd, when a pair of lawyers visited Mr Ocalan in his island prison on the Marmara Sea, where he has been held for nearly two decades.
The news was quickly overshadowed by political drama. Only four days after the visit Turkey’s election board voted to overturn the outcome of a mayoral election in Istanbul, in which the opposition scored a remarkable upset, and ordered a repeat.
The two decisions, to reopen channels with Mr Ocalan and to try to overturn the mayoral vote, could not have happened without the involvement of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, analysts say. Many of them see a connection.
More than any other group, it was Kurdish voters who helped the opposition’s candidate for Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, score a narrow victory in late March.
Displaced from villages and towns in Turkey’s south-east by decades of war between the PKK and the army, as well as poverty, millions of Kurds have settled in the west of the country. Istanbul’s population of 15m people includes at least 2m Kurds, more than in any city in the mainly Kurdish south-east of the country. Most of them support the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an alliance of liberals and Kurdish nationalists, which did not field its own candidate in the Istanbul vote, and endorsed Mr Imamoglu instead. On election day over 80% of the HDP’s voters backed Mr Imamoglu, according to research by TEPAV, a think-tank. The remainder appear to have abstained.
To win the repeat election, Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party might have to reel in at least some of the abstainers, as well as conservative Kurds, to secure the election of its candidate, a former prime minister, Binali Yildrim. “Erdogan’s loss has entirely to do with Kurdish dissent,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He might have to pivot to the Kurds simply to keep power.”
The decision to allow Mr Ocalan to meet his lawyers appears to be part of the outreach, says Ms Aydintasbas. The move comes amid rumours that Turkish spooks recently met members of the PKK’s Syrian franchise, known as the YPG, to discuss a possible “safe zone” in Syria’s north-east. Despite opposition from America, which teamed up with the YPG to crush Islamic State’s “caliphate”, Mr Erdogan’s government has repeatedly threatened to attack the YPG’s strongholds in Syria. In a statement passed on to his lawyers, Mr Ocalan called on Turkey and the Kurdish insurgents to shun violence and pursue a settlement “within the framework of a united Syria.”
To make any new inroads with Kurdish voters ahead of the repeat election in Istanbul, scheduled for June 23rd, Mr Erdogan will have to do much more than put out feelers to the PKK’s leader. During his first decade in power, Turkey’s strongman offered the Kurds new cultural rights and launched peace talks with the separatists. Over the past four years, however, he has presided over ruthless army operations against PKK fighters in cities across the south-east, the arrests of thousands of Kurdish activists, an alliance with Turkish ultranationalists, plus what many Kurds consider a land grab in Syria’s Afrin province. Mr Erdogan has just over a month to chip away at that legacy. He may be too late.