Roots of latest at­tack in Tur­key

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - ISHAAN THA­ROOR

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.

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