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The suicide bombings that claimed close to 100 lives at a peace rally in Ankara on October 10 have magnified Turkey’s divisions and its instability ahead of the November 1 elections.
Anger at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP government is mounting, raising fears that the 78mn nation, already standing on potentially explosive ethnic and political fault lines, could slide into complete chaos.
The situation was already tense even before the Ankara bombings, the deadliest single terror act in the history of modern Turkey, after the two-year old ceasefire with the Kurdish PKK guerillas collapsed in July. The subsequent clashes in the country’s Kurdish southeast have killed more than 150 security personnel and reportedly hundreds of PKK militants.
The PKK, in a surprise move, declared a unilateral ceasefire on October 11 until the elections in honour of the bombing victims. But, Turkish warplanes continue to conduct more air raids on PKK positions in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, reportedly killing dozens of militants.
Critics have accused Erdogan and the government of whipping up ethnic tensions in order to galvanise Turkish nationalism and regain a parliamentary majority at the November snap general election. The AKP lost its majority at the general election in June for the first time since coming to power in 2002. However, a recent survey by Metropoll before the Ankara bombings found that support for the AKP has only increased by 1%.
The general election campaign itself has added to the volatility, with critics accusing Erdogan of sabotaging attempts to form a coalition government after the June election in a single-minded attempt to win a majority to change the constitution and strengthen his own powers.
Now the organisers of the Ankara peace rally and many people put the blame on the government for the attack. Some accuse the government of failing to have taken necessary precautions, while others even claim that the government had a direct hand in it. This only shows the level of people’s distrust in the government.
The bombing should have been foreseeable. There was always a good chance that Islamic State (IS), the suspected organiser, would retaliate against Turkey’s decision to bomb some IS positions in Syria and open its air bases to the US to launch attacks on the jihadist group.
People doubt any explanations that come from a government that did not properly investigate corruption allegations against itself, that failed to find the culprits of similar bomb attacks in the towns of Suruc and Reyhanli, that cracks down on almost every anti-government protest brutally, that imposes politically motivated tax fines to intimidate businessmen, that suppresses media and that praises the police who killed scores of protesters during the 2013 demonstrations as “heroes”.
Turkey has a long history of political violence – including the three-decade-long Kurdish conflict that killed more than 40,000 people – but what makes the suicide attacks on a peaceful rally unique and dangerous is the unprecedented political and social environment.
The bomb attack evokes memories of past episodes of political violence. Intense street clashes between far-right nationalists and leftwing groups during the 1970s left thousands of people dead and led to military coups in 1971 and 1980. Hundreds of Alevites (a moderate and secular version of Islam) were killed in the mid-70s in coordinated attacks in the towns of Corum and Maras.
Yet, despite the intense political violence and sectarian tensions, Turkey did not slide into an outright civil war. Even in those turbulent times the country’s political leaders sought dialogue and were able to form coalition governments, though short-lived.
Today’s political leaders, however, are at each other’s throats. Hostilities and hardened stances block the avenues of constructive dialogue, while society is deeply polarised.
After the tragedy in Ankara, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu refused to meet with HDP’s co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, whom he accuses of courting the PKK; the leader of the nationalists Devlet Bahceli does not want to sit around a table with Davutoglu, Demirtas and Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition People’s Republican Party, CHP, to talk about the country’s problems until the PKK is totally crushed.
Kilicdaroglu and Demirtas have agreed to meet to discuss what to do to ease social tension, but they know they cannot stop Erdogan who still runs the AKP behind the scenes, even though the constitution requires him to remain politically neutral.
It is a widely shared view that it was Erdogan who blocked the formation of a coalition government after the inconclusive June elections, forcing snap polls. Critics says Erdogan has a lot to fear; once he loses his immunity, he could stand trial for corruption allegations and for allegedly providing opposition groups in Syria, including radical Islamists, with guns. That’s why he does whatever it takes to stay in power, claim his critics.
Erdogan is the kingmaker who can break the political deadlock. However, given the complexity of the situation, it is difficult to say how he would react if the next elections produced yet another hung parliament. More reliable polling agencies predict that the results of the November elections will be similar to those of the June poll.
Chaos or reconciliation
As the past couple of years have shown, the worst features of Erdogan’s rule – media repression, a crackdown on dissents, divisive and polarising rhetoric, his ambitions for greater power, zero tolerance to criticism and resorting to military means to handle the Kurdish problem – have only destabilised the county, making Turkey virtually ungovernable.
There are rumours that if violence escalates further the elections could be scrapped. This could be a disaster as the anger directed at Erdogan and the government would only grow stronger, because people would think that the government intentionally provoked violence to use it as a pretext to postpone the elections.
A number of rallies that have been held in several cities to condemn the Ankara attack show that people are not intimidated and are still willing to go out to the streets despite all the security threats and police crackdown.
Thus any attempts to postpone the elections without any credible justification may provoke popular resistance, which could only be crashed by brutal force, which would prompt strong condemnation from Turkey’s allies in the West. But government officials deny the rumours, saying the elections will be held.
A repeat of the Gezi-like mass protests, on the other hand, does not seem very likely, at least at the moment. The 2013 Gezi Park protests were spontaneous, a sudden and unexpected eruption of anger and disbelief.
True, Erdogan has not been able to rule country as easily as he had done before Gezi but the opposition has become more fragmented since the massive anti-government protests, especially after the collapse of the PKK ceasefire. During the Gezi protests the nationalists, CHP supporters and socialists walked side by side on the streets against a common foe. Kurds did not take part in the protests in large numbers because they thought the toppling of Erdogan, who initiated the talks with the PKK, would mean the end of the peace process.
This time around, however, it is almost impossible for the Kurds and nationalists to rally behind a common cause. The nationalists regard the HDP as the political front to the PKK and see Erdogan as a traitor because of the peace talks with the Kurdish insurgents; while in the eyes of the Kurds, Erdogan has sacrificed the peace process for the sake of gaining votes from the nationalists.
The CHP has not changed its position. The secularist, centre-left party says it could still take part in any coalition government, including one with the AKP under certain conditions. It also says the HDP should not be excluded from the political process, and the peace process must resume, but the talks should not be held behind closed doors.
A football game between the national teams of Turkey and Iceland on October 13, in the conservative town of Konya, the AKP’s stronghold, manifested how deeply divided Turkish society is. Some Turkish fans defied a call for a moment of silence for the victims of the Ankara bombings, booing and chanting “Allahu Akbar” in protest.
The situation is serious and unstable, but the country has not yet reached the tipping point of tumbling into total chaos. Not all the options have been exhausted. Dialogue and compromise to form a coalition government is the only way out from the current impasse, but this will be possible only if Erdogan agrees to confine his role within the constitutional limits and give up on his polarising discourse.
The opposition parties continue to try to convince Erdogan to accept the fact that the presidency is only a ceremonial post and he should remain above politics. But so far there is no-one brave enough within the AKP to stand up to Erdogan and there is no sign that could happen before the elections.
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