The European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey on Tuesday for its mistreatment of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence in an isolated island prison since 1999.
The ruling comes as Turkish democracy appears particularly fragile, with Prime Minister Recep Erdogan implementing a series of repressive measures in recent months, i.e., Internet restrictions and a tightening of the country’s judiciary, in the lead-up to critical local elections set to take place on March 30, and amidst a high-profile graft scandal. That Erdogan is responding to simmering public unrest — on the rise since the funeral of Berkin Elvan last Tuesday (Elvan was injured in anti-government protests last year) — with heavy-handed tactics is unsurprising. The premier has long relied on his conservative support base to carry him and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) through any rough political patches, maintaining his brawling persona along the way.
Now, however, the premier may be facing a new challenge in inflamed tensions within Turkey’s large Kurdish community, long uneasy about Erdogan. Though the Turkish leader brokered a landmark truce with the Kurdish armed movement, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), in April, he stopped short of enacting major reforms, or, notably, agreeing to the release of Ocalan, the group’s founder. Since, relations between Ankara and the PKK have cooled. Nonetheless, Erdogan continues to bank on support from Kurdish lawmakers to back a constitutional amendment that would expand presidential powers. (With his premiership expiring, Erdogan has set his sights on the presidential office.)
Here, Turkish Kurds have room to maneuver, especially with Erdogan fixated — for now — on threats from within his government, i.e., the Hizmet movement led by former Erdogan supporter cleric Fethullah Gulen, and presumably in need of new allies. Bolstered by the European court ruling, the PKK may be able to squeeze out increased privileges, though not amnesty, for Ocalan. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), whose electoral support Erdogan needs and which is gaining ground among young voters, is already hinting at a push for Kurdish autonomy that would follow local elections. But with Erdogan seemingly hell-bent on an ‘all or nothing’ approach, it’s hard to imagine the premier making any concessions until after both the local and presidential elections.
Meaning the PKK will be forced to choose the enemy it knows. After all, the Kurdish movement is on frosty terms with the AKP’s political rivals, notably the Hizmet, which opposes negotiations with the Kurds, whereas Erdogan’s party supports, in theory, the peace process. Turkey’s nationalist parties similarly oppose a Kurdish peace process and have upped their attacks (physical and rhetorical) against Kurdish parties in recent weeks. The BDP is reportedly resigned to backing the embattled premier, if only to salvage peace talks. Despite condemnations of Erdogan from within and without Turkey, the prime minister continues to hold the upper hand — at least when it comes to the Kurds.