By Daren Butler
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey should consider bringing back the death penalty, a decade after Ankara abolished capital punishment as part of reforms aimed at European Union membership.
Political commentators accused Erdogan of populism ahead of the 2014 presidential election in which he is widely expected to run.
His comments, in a speech on Sunday, follow an upsurge in Kurdish militant violence which has raised pressure on the government to act over a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people since it began 28 years ago.
"In the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table (for discussion)," Erdogan told a crowd.
Turkey abolished the death penalty in peacetime in 2002 under reforms aimed at EU membership. It was abolished totally in 2004, two years after Erdogan's AK Party came to power.
Abolition of the death penalty is a pre-condition for EU entry. But Turkey's progress towards EU membership has ground to a virtual halt in recent years amid opposition from France and Germany and Erdogan has become increasingly dismissive of the bloc, focusing instead on Turkey's role as a regional power.
"Probably the premier's staff, following the mood of the nation through frequent opinion polls, advised him that a pro-death penalty stance might help his presidential aspirations," columnist Yusuf Kanli wrote in the Hurriyet Daily News.
Erdogan has made several references to the death penalty this month, first raising the issue at an AK Party meeting where he said opinion polls showed strong support for reinstating it.
When capital punishment was abolished, separatist militant Abdullah Ocalan was on death row after being sentenced in 1999 as leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union. European pressure on Ankara not to execute Ocalan played a major role in the reform.
Tensions are running high in Turkey over a hunger strike by hundreds of Kurdish militants demanding greater rights and improved prison conditions for Ocalan, who has not seen his lawyers for 15 months.
Five Kurdish members of parliament and the mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast, joined the hunger strike on Saturday. The Justice Ministry says 1,800 are involved in the protest, which began 62 days ago.
The hunger strikers are consuming sugared water and vitamins that will prolong by weeks a protest which Erdogan has condemned as "blackmail", dubbing its supporters "merchants of death".
His government has boosted Kurdish cultural and language rights since taking power a decade ago and is expected to submit to parliament a bill allowing Kurdish language testimony in court, one of the protesters' demands. But Kurdish politicians are seeking moves towards autonomy in southeast Turkey.
The last time a prisoner was executed in Turkey was in 1984. Prime Minister Adnan Menderes was executed along with two cabinet ministers in 1961, a year after an army takeover.
Erdogan pointed to the United States, Russia, China and Japan as countries where capital punishment is implemented, saying Turkey must review the situation. He suggested families of murder victims should have a say in the fate of killers.
"We do not consider the state has the authority to forgive the killer. This authority belongs to the family of the victim, it cannot belong to us," he said.
(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Janet Lawrence)