If my Kurdish friend’s intuition is not deceiving him, we will soon hear from PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Some media that may have been fed by the Turkish state have also started rumours about some call that may soon be coming from the Kurdish leader. That would be good news because Öcalan has been in total isolation for almost three years. But we need to be wary and not lose sight of the political dynamics at play.
The rumour that Öcalan would come up with some kind of call in the coming days was first shared by Haberler.com, that heard the news ‘behind the scenes’. It’s not a serious news website, but one that mostly copy-pastes news from elsewhere, and it has obviously been fed this particular story by government circles. The phrasing is fully in line with how media in press pools report on anything related to the Kurdish movement, using such phrases as ‘terrorist leader’ and the like.
The Kurdish service from Rudaw published a story based on the Haberler news. Rudaw is operated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the most important party in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that cooperates with the Turkish army and intelligence services in the war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Rudaw published it in Kurdish too, but not in English – maybe they don’t think their English language audiences need to be fed these kind of manipulations, but now I’m speculating.
Manipulations? Yes, indeed. Basically everything the state does when it concerns Öcalan, can be considered a manipulation. After all, the government fully controls what leaves Imralı prison island, where the leader is locked up, and who communicates with him when. He has been mostly held in solitary confinement since he was captured in 1999. The current period, in which he hasn’t even been allowed to communicate with his family and lawyers, has been going on now for almost three years. In case you missed it: a rotational hunger strike is going on in prisons across Turkey to demand the end of Öcalan’s isolation. The hungerstrike started on 27 November, the date in 1978 when the PKK was founded, and will end on 15 February, the date in 1999 that Öcalan was captured.
The authorities already hinted last month that Imralı could possibly be visited ‘if deemed appropriate’. No specifics were given, but it’s important to ask what ‘appropriate’ means, and appropriate for whom – for the state, of course. What would the state’s interest be in breaking Öcalan’s isolation now?
The last time the state deemed it ‘appropriate’, was in the summer of 2019, right before the re-run of the municipal elections in Istanbul. A letter by Öcalan was made public in which he called on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to ‘form a third way’ between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The state-controlled Anadolu Agency spun it into a claim that Öcalan wanted the HDP to ‘remain neutral’ in the elections. That spin served the AKP because the HDP supported the CHP’s candidate Imamoğlu.
For the government, it is easy to manipulate Öcalan’s words. The Turkish public doesn’t know much about the proposals of the Kurdish political movement to democratize Turkey and liberate Kurdistan, and is even more ignorant about the way Öcalan speaks and writes. As the HDP explained in 2019, the letter didn’t even refer to the elections but was painting a much broader picture, as the political thinker Öcalan always does. For days, The Letter was debated in the news, with AKP-affiliated media suggesting that there was a rift between different representatives in the Kurdish movement. In vain though: with Kurdish support, Imamoğlu won.
And now municipal elections are coming up again, on 31 March. The Peoples’ Equality and Democracy (DEM) Party, the current political party of the Kurdish movement, has announced it will run with its own candidates. In the parliamentary elections last year, the Kurdish party (Yeşil Sol at the time) didn’t perform very well, and it looks like this time, they are returning to their Kurdish roots to more effectively amplify the democratic demands of their constituency.
And who has effectively kicked off the election campaign? Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the HDP (DEM Party’s predecessor, that had to withdraw from the political scene because the state was about to ban it), who has been in jail since 2016 and delivered his defense in court in the first days of this year. He was brilliant. Officially it may have been his defense, but in practice it was an indictment of the state. He analyzed the Kurdish issue in a historical manner and repeated the Kurdish people’s demands for freedom and democracy. He mentioned democratic confederalism explicitly as a solution to the Kurdish issue. His full defense is available in Turkish on the HDP’s website here, here and here.
And he mentioned Öcalan several times too. My wording: Öcalan is the Kurdish movement’s main political philosopher and the Kurdish people won’t be free until he is free. Öcalan and Demirtaş, and the whole of the Kurdish political movement, propose this as a solution. There is no rift between Öcalan and Demirtaş.
Keep that in mind if one of these days, a message from Öcalan emerges. And keep in mind that breaking the isolation is good from a humanitarian perspective, but that it only truly means anything politically if the state sets up the negotiating table and offers Öcalan a prominent chair at it. The rest is distraction and manipulation.