Ankara bombing curdles already-fraught Turkish election campaign

Two explosions blasted Ankara on Saturday, resulting in over 100 deaths in the worst terrorist incident in modern Turkish history. (AFP/Getty)
Two explosions blasted Ankara on Saturday, resulting in over 100 deaths in the worst terrorist incident in modern Turkish history. (AFP/Getty)

Arguably no one can claim that he or she speaks more for the Turkish conscience than Orhan Pamuk, the only Turk to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Turkey

In unusually strong terms, Pamuk told the Italian daily La Repubblica yesterday that the divisive policies of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are partially to blame for creating an environment of instability and chaos that served as the backdrop to Saturday’s deadly bombing in Ankara:

“The electoral defeat enraged Erdogan,” Pamuk told the daily, arguing that the setback, which resulted in new elections being scheduled for November 1, was also behind the recent resumption of hostilities between the army and Kurdish militants.

“He didn’t succeed in convincing the Kurds to give him their votes for his plan to create a presidential republic,” Pamuk said. “That is why he decided to go to the polls again on November 1. But neither the government nor the army were satisfied with how things were going and they agreed to resume the war against the Kurdish movement.”

The country now finds itself even more divided in the wake of a terrorist bombing that has now killed more than 100 people, the deadliest such attack in the history of the modern Turkish republic.

The Ankara attack and its political fallout are now set to dominate the last 19 days of the election campaign, and it augurs the possibility of ominous threat to Turkish democracy.

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RELATED: How the AKP hopes to regain
its absolute majority in November

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Erdoğan, elected president two years ago and whose Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) rose to power initially in 2002, has not yet delivered more than a short statement in response to the bombing. Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s remarks Saturday initially blamed ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State, Kurdish  nationalists or left-wing activists for the attack, though the government says it now believes, on the basis of hard evidence, that the Islamic State is behind the bombings. The attack is similar to a suicide bombing in the southern border town of Suruç that killed 33 people in July — and that set Turkish armed forces in action against Islamic State. Nevertheless, ISIS militants, who are never incredibly bashful about such attacks, have not taken credit for the bombings.

Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish human rights attorney who leads the Kurdish-interest HDP, blamed the government for stoking tensions that led to the Ankara bombings. (Facebook)
Selahattin Demirtaş, a Kurdish human rights attorney who leads the Kurdish-interest HDP, blamed the government for stoking tensions that led to the Ankara bombings. (Facebook)

The Suruç attack also brought angry reprisals from Kurdish militants against Turkish police and military personnel. Erdoğan responded by escalating tensions, thereby bringing to an end a years-long ceasefire with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an armed Marxist group that has intermittently fought the Turkish military since the 1980s. Until this summer, greater cultural autonomy and political freedom for Turkey’s Kurdish population, and a growing sense of security and peace under the mutual ceasefire, had been one of Erdoğan’s most crucial legacies.

No longer.

In the June parliamentary elections, the social democratic, Kurdish-interest Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party) won 13% of the vote, entitling it to 80 seats in the 550-member Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly). It was the first time that an explicitly pro-Kurdish party won more than 10% of the vote in a national election and, as such, should have marked an important turning point for a maturing Turkish democracy.

Instead, it had the practical effect of denying an absolute majority to Erdoğan’s AKP, which fell 20 seats short of control. Months of fruitless negotiations with two additional opposition parties left the country at an impasse. Erdoğan, unaccustomed to coalition rule and impatient for a fresh shot at restoring majority government, simply ordered new elections for November 1.

The campaign has hardly been a best-practices exercise, as the AKP has bullied opposition forces and muzzled journalists, equating the anti-violence HDP with the PKK’s guerrilla movement. The HDP’s popular leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, sharpened his tone on Saturday, directly accusing Erdoğan of fueling the tensions that led to Saturday’s attack. Though Demirtaş has championed peaceful means like democracy and civic engagement as a better alternative for Kurds than the PKK’s armed approach, the AKP and other political parties have excluded the HDP from coalition talks.

As of Saturday morning, the PKK confirmed that it was engaging in a unilateral ceasefire through the election, though it was overshadowed by the tragic bombing in Ankara.

Given the timing of the suicide bombing in Ankara on Saturday, three weeks before a high-stakes election that could reaffirm Turkey’s political impasse, it’s not surprising that many Turks are blaming Erdoğan. Police forces initially deployed tear gas against victims and relatives of victims in the aftermath of the attack on Saturday, and there are growing calls for interior secretary Selami Altınok to resign. Erdoğan’s government is facing increasingly hostile questioning about the lapse in security that allowed the worst terrorist attack in modern Turkish history to occur so close to the heart of Turkish government. More broadly, critics like Pamuk and other secular liberals are already arguing that Erdoğan’s reckless escalation against both ISIS’s jihadists and Kurdish militants exacerbated Turkey’s fragile political climate.

The most strident critics argue that the Turkish military or intelligence services may have actually played a role in the attacks, which targeted a peace rally heavily attended by the HDP activists that Erdoğan’s allies have savaged in recent weeks as PKK accomplices and outright terrorists. Though that seems unlikely, Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic rule has been accompanied for the last 13 years by paranoid conspiracy-mongering at every step. Initial threats of a military coup that might oust the Islamist AKP to ‘restore’ democracy had a basis in historical practice. But the later Ergenekon trials of the late 2000s, which rounded up Kemalists, journalists and other opposition figures, and the AKP’s attack on the once-friendly Gulenist movement in the early 2010s belied an increasingly isolated Erdoğan, who has pushed key figures like former president Abdullah Gül and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan to the sidelines of policymaking.

It’s an ironic twist that Erdoğan’s critics may yet turn a climate of fear and intrigue against him.

As the campaign runs its course, the Turkish government may crack down even further on the media and opposition forces, and a leading editor was already under arrest before the Saturday bombing as the government increasingly clamps down against press freedom. Even more concerning is the idea that PKK and/or ISIS activity could so destabilize southeastern Turkey, where many of its Kurds live, or government restrictions in the name of ‘security’ could depress turnout so much that the HDP’s vote share on November 1 falls below 10%, the threshold to enter the national assembly.

If the AKP does manage to win a majority by suppressing a peaceful and democratic Kurdish political movement, Turkey’s Kurds could turn away from mainstream politics and towards the PKK’s guerrilla tactics. That would be devastating, given that both the Turkish government and Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq alike share a common enemy in ISIS.

If the AKP fails, after two attempts, to win its majority, there’s already talk that Erdoğan could push for a third consecutive election. That step could also push Turkey farther down its destabilizing path, also erasing the thinning veneer of the Turkish democracy — even though it was the initial AKP triumph in 2002 that did so much to bolster the promise of Turkish democracy.

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