Roots of latest attack in Turkey
Toxic politics have been the fuel for a monumental tragedy.
The twin bomb blasts that tore through a peace rally in the Turkish capital Saturday, killing at least 97 people, are being called the deadliest attack in the history of modern Turkey.
The bombings targeted a gathering organized by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), one of the country’s leading opposition groups, just weeks before national elections are scheduled to be held.
It is unclear who was behind the attack, but the bloodshed is bound to exacerbate tensions in Turkey, which has experienced a deepening, deadly polarization since elections in June failed to produce a stable government.
The Kurdish question
The HDP is a leftist, largely Kurdish party that emerged only in recent years. In June, it scored a stunning electoral victory, winning more than 10 percent of the vote. In Turkey, that percentage is the threshold a party needs to cross to gain a bloc of seats in parliament. The HDP’s success was a blow to the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the June elections, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002.
The HDP was buoyed by anti-Erdogan sentiment across the nation as well as by widespread support from Turkey’s Kurds, a minority ethnic group that represents about a fifth of the country’s population but whose vote has traditionally been split.
The HDP’s success was considered a landmark moment. Some HDP politicians who entered parliament have relatives in the PKK, a Kurdish separatist guerrilla organization that is deemed a terrorist group by both Ankara and Washington. The Kurdish insurgency, which has blown hot and cold for more than 30 years, has claimed 40,000 lives. Yet here were the Kurdish nationalists galvanizing non-Kurdish voters and entering the Turkish political mainstream
after decades of marginalization.
President in his labyrinth
Three months later, and the HDP’s euphoria in June seems an eternity ago.
None of Turkey’s four main political parties, including the AKP and the HDP, was able to organize a coalition government. Meanwhile, long-running animosities exploded in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast, with the PKK ending a fragile ceasefire and resuming attacks on Turkish security forces. Turkey embarked on a concerted counterinsurgency campaign, putting towns under curfew and conducting airstrikes against PKK mountain redoubts, including camps across the border in northern Iraq.
Hundreds died over the summer in what has been a lowlevel civil war next door to Syria. The HDP has championed the cause of peace and accused the Turkish government of heavyhandedness. The rally in Ankara was part of the HDP’s effort to promote calm. Yet the party’s opponents, including Erdogan, still cast the group as the sheep’s clothing concealing the wolf that is the PKK.
Critics of Erdogan say the Turkish president and his governing party have stoked the tensions for political gain, hoping that deepening anti-Kurdish sentiment will undermine the HDP in new elections. The Turkish government has angrily dismissed the accusation. Whatever the case, current surveys suggest that the HDP will retain its level of support, and perhaps gain more, in the Nov. 1 elections.
The question then is: What will Erdogan do? June’s elections were seen as a referendum on his ambitions for further power. Erdogan, who had served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, sought a parliamentary super-majority so that he could change Turkey’s constitution and usher in a presidential system in which his office would be endowed with greater executive powers.
The AKP’s worst showing in more than a decade left Erdogan’s plans in tatters. Yet he did not retreat into the ceremonial, nonpartisan role usually reserved for the Turkish presidency under the current system, in which the prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, should be the country’s most powerful political figure.
Over the past decade, Erdogan has become the most influential Turkish politician since the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan brought to heel the country’s long-meddling military, ushered in economic reforms that lifted up a new Turkish middle class and has steadily chipped away at Ataturk’s secularist legacy, embracing instead a religious nationalism popular among a wide swath of Sunni Muslim voters outside Turkey’s major cities on its western coast.
In recent years, Erdogan has earned a reputation as a wouldbe autocrat, playing a majoritarian game to consolidate his own base and hold onto power. Some dissenting voices in the media have been muffled or intimidated. Liberals and others who once supported Erdogan’s reforms now fear attack from elements of the state.
There is a heated, volatile political climate in which divisions are pronounced and prospects for reconciliation dim. Last month, the offices of the Hurriyet newspaper, one of Turkey’s biggest dailies, were attacked by nationalist mobs because of the paper’s supposedly anti-Erdogan coverage.
“As spectators of Turkish politics, we are currently watching an end-to-end pileup in slow motion,” said Burak Kadercan, an assistant professor of strategy and policy at the United States Naval War College, writing in the online publication War on the Rocks.
A region in crisis
The current polarization also is affected by the disastrous conflict in Syria, which has entered its fifth year and impelled as many as 2 million Syrian refugees to flee to Turkey. The successes of Syrian Kurdish factions, which have carved out a de facto rump state along Turkey’s border with Syria, have both alarmed Ankara and spurred Kurdish nationalism within Turkey.
As World Views has noted, hundreds of Turkish Kurds have joined the Syrian Kurdish units fighting the Islamic State and other factions in Syria. Leftists and other HDP supporters were among the dozens killed in July by a suspected jihadist suicide bombing in Suruc, a Turkish border town adjacent to Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish bastion.
With each burst of violence, the likelihood of further escalation has grown. Before the Ankara bombings, the PKK offered a unilateral cease-fire ahead of the elections. Now, there’s a chance that some of the PKK’s more rogue or radical wings could engage in further destabilizing attacks.
The onus falls on Erdogan to bring Turkey back from the brink. The president may have played a key role in the country’s polarization, Washington-based analyst Soner Cagaptay wrote in the Atlantic, but “it’s ultimately up to him to tamp down tensions before they explode.” After Saturday’s carnage, one fears how much worse the situation can become.
Peace marchers in Ankara flinch as a bomb explodes nearby. Turkish officials said the death toll from twin blasts Saturday was at least 97.