Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -
Turkish nationalist mobs attacked the offices of the mainly Kurdish party (HDP) in several cities and set fire to the party’s headquarters in Ankara on the night of September 8, sparking fears that violence, largely contained in Turkey’s southeastern provinces so far, could spin out of control.
Nationalist sentiment is running high on the streets of Turkey as the country heads towards snap elections in November at which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is desperate to regain the parliamentary majority his Justice and Development Party (AKP) party enjoyed for 12 years until losing it at the last polls in June.
What trigged Tuesday night’s violent events are recent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerilla attacks that killed more than 30 security personnel in the country’s eastern and southeastern provinces. Thousands of supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) took to the streets in protest against the attacks. The government and nationalists regard the HDP as the political wing of the PKK.
This was not the first time that HDP offices and its officials had come under attack but the scale and nature of Tuesday’s assaults was alarming. Not only were HDP buildings attacked by thousands of nationalists but also Kurdish businesses were targeted, pelted with rocks and some were torched. There were also reports that Kurdish workers in Ankara’s Beypazari district were beaten up.
The main concern now is whether Tuesday’s violent events will lead to a wider ethnic conflict, engulfing the entire nation. The PKK, classified as a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and the ensuing conflict has claimed the lives of more than 40,000 people. But even during this three-decade long insurgency, Turkey never came close to all-out sectarian conflict.
The country’s major political figures, including Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, appealed for calm after Tuesday’s violence. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chairman of the opposition CHP, asked supporters not to attend any protests that could incite ethnic hatred. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the nationalists, warned his party members about provocations.
Pelted with rocks
For the second time this week, on September 8 pro-government protesters also attacked the Hurriyet newspaper, one of Turkey’s largest dailies, accusing the newspaper, which is critical of the government, of misquoting a statement by Erdogan.
Commenting on recent unrest in Turkey, Erdogan said earlier this week that if a party had won 400 seats in the June elections and reached the required number to change the constitution, the situation now would be different. Hurriyet suggested in a tweet that Erdogan referred to the Daglica attack in which 16 soldiers were killed.
The newspaper later deleted this tweet, but on Sunday a group of AKP-supporters gathered before Hurriyet’s building, pelting the offices with rocks.
The government initially failed to condemn the attack, prompting the US to call on Turkey to respect media freedoms. “We’re concerned by reports that the protests against the Hurriyet Daily were encouraged by members of the Justice and Development Party. Elected officials must be careful not to appear to encourage violence against media outlets”, said John Kirby, spokesman for the US State Department on September 8.
Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus finally said on September 9 that “we will never tolerate these attacks against media institutions. An investigation will be launched into all those linked to the incidents.”
The attack on Hurriyet came amid growing concerns over press freedom in Turkey. Critics claim that the president wants to silence opposition media ahead of the elections. Earlier this month the police raided the offices of Koza-Ipek, which owns TV channels Kanalturk, Bugun and Bugun and Millet newspaper.
Police searched the offices of the group once again on September 9, seeking financial documents. The group’s two units Koza Altin and Koza Anadolu Metal are being investigated on suspicion of "terror financing”, "terror propaganda" and other crimes related to Chairman Hamdi Akin Ipek's alleged support for Fethullah Gulen, the conservative US-based preacher who split with Erdogan in 2013.
Doubts over fair elections
Amid the violence, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the HDP, warned on September 9 that holding elections in the county’s eastern and southeastern provinces – where clashes between the security forces and the PKK have become daily occurrences after a two-year-old ceasefire collapsed two months ago – will be impossible because of the deteriorating security conditions.
The HDP easily cleared the 10% threshold to enter parliament in the June elections, securing around 13% of the votes and 80 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The Kurdish party’s electoral success cost the AKP its parliamentary majority. Most of the Kurds who had previously supported the AKP, voted for the HDP in June elections.
If the turnout rate were low in the southeastern and eastern provinces in the November elections because of the violence there, the main beneficiary would be the AKP. If the HDP remains below the threshold this time, the AKP would be able to regain all the seats it lost to the Kurdish party in the Kurdish constituencies and could form a single party government. That’s why Demirtas claims Erdogan and the AKP target the HDP.
Yet even if the HDP fails to enter parliament, the AKP may still not be able to win a super majority in parliament to change the constitution. Some polls, conducted before recent PKK attacks, even suggest that the new elections would not dramatically change the parliamentary arithmetic.
Demirtas is confident that his party will even increase its vote under fair elections. “There are some among those protesters who think they are backed by the government. They are wrong on that because the government they think is backing them has already fallen from power in the June elections,” he said.
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