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The Kettle Boils Over: Violence in Turkey

This is the second in a series of articles covering Turkish politics leading up to the general elections on Nov. 1. Click here to read the first article, which provides background information on the four major parties and recent developments in their relationships with one another. 

By Laurel Jarombek

On Saturday, Oct. 10, Turkey experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history. Two blasts went off at a peace rally in Ankara, which was organized by labor unions and left-leaning NGOs. Supporters of these groups and members of the liberal Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) came from all over the country to protest the ongoing violence between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces. At the time of publication, details about the attack are still forthcoming, but the two suicide bombers have reportedly been identified, and at least one has been connected to ISIS. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has also suggested that suspects connected to the case may have PKK affiliations, though this remains unconfirmed. As of Oct. 14, a broad media ban on topics related to the bombings is in place in Turkey until all suspects have been detained. At least 99 people died in the attack, while dozens more are still being treated in Ankara’s hospitals.

Violent incidents have become routine in Turkey over the past few months, even if none have occurred on as large a scale as the Ankara bombing and the only other attack carried out by ISIS occurred on July 20 in Suruç. Opposition leaders have been openly critical of the government’s security policies leading up to the Ankara attack, particularly upon discovering that the two perpetrators had been on the government’s list of potential suicide bombers. Both CHP and HDP leaders have suggested that the government is politically responsible for the tragedy. The attitudes toward past incidents of violence among the leaders of the conservative ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), have also been widely condemned.

The AKP has been accused of contributing to the culture of violence by fomenting ultra-nationalist sentiment and demonizing opposition groups. Since negotiations to form a coalition government after the June 7 elections fell through, violence perpetrated by the state, by the PKK, and by individual nationalists has risen. As Yeşim Arat, Professor of Political Science at Boğaziçi University, told World Policy Journal in an email, these trends “make the political climate savage.”

The continued fighting between the PKK and Turkish security forces has also been accompanied by a rise in anti-Kurdish sentiments among more extreme Turkish nationalists. Incidents targeting Kurds have increased over the past few months, and the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish HDP in Ankara, in addition to several local party offices, were attacked in early September. On Sept. 13, the HDP publicized a press release detailing 105 separate threats, attacks, and attempted attacks on HDP property or members between Sept. 6 and 9.

According to Professor Hakan Yılmaz, also of Boğaziçi University, this trend is particularly dangerous because, once attacks on ethnic or religious groups begin, they are difficult to stop. Yılmaz told WPJ, “it’s a very dangerous game; it’s a big risk the government has taken by starting this process.” By renewing attacks against PKK targets, the government has been trying to draw on strong nationalist currents, which in the Turkish context is typically anti-Kurdish. Once fired up, these passions are difficult to subdue.

The HDP and Turkey’s Kurdish population have not been the only victims of violence over the past few months; attacks on independent media outlets and journalists have also escalated recently. The Istanbul headquarters of Hürriyet, a prominent daily newspaper, were attacked in early September by a group of pro-AKP protesters claiming that the newspaper had misrepresented President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statements. Ahmet Hakan, a columnist at Hürriyet Daily News, was assaulted by AKP members on Oct. 1. The government is also involved in intimidating members of the press; dozens of journalists have been harassed and detained in the Kurdish-majority southeastern provinces, and the editor-in-chief of Todays Zaman was detained for allegedly defaming the president on Twitter.

Yılmaz points out that the groups carrying out the attacks on Kurdish and media targets are not representative of a broader social movement or mainstream sentiment. Rather, they are  “organized mobs” that are committing these crimes against anyone who opposes President Erdoğan and the AKP “because they think the police wouldn’t touch them.” The culture of impunity enables these groups to commit crimes with minimal repercussions.

The problem is not merely that violent elements of Turkish society are outside the reach of institutions meant to promote peace and democracy. Rather, according to Arat, “In Turkey we do not have an independent judiciary, nor an independent press, nor practically any independent state institutions left.” She contends that President Erdoğan nurtured an “illiberal, if not authoritarian political context” in which “there is no rule of law.”

So far, opinion polls suggest that the outcome in November will be similar to that of the June election, again making a coalition necessary to form a viable government. According to Arat, the “best possible outcome for the country…is [an AKP-CHP] coalition that the President allows to form and allows to function. They could perhaps initiate a solution to the Kurdish question, contain the religious polarization in the country and begin building an independent judiciary and media.”

An AKP-CHP coalition could certainly help stabilize the country, as the CHP would moderate the AKP’s conservative nationalism and rein in its authoritarian impulses. In order to achieve this alliance, however, President Erdoğan’s concerns about joining forces with an opposition party would need to be overcome.

As violence has proliferated under the AKP’s rule, too, the CHP has become more openly critical of AKP policies. Commenting on the violence between the PKK and security forces, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said, “The people responsible for this are the people governing the country.” While comments like these do not necessarily mean the CHP will reject an opportunity to govern with the AKP, they do generate bad blood between the two parties – and their supporters – that could undermine the probability and effectiveness of a coalition.

MHP rally in Ankara

Yılmaz suggests that the most likely outcome in November may actually be a coalition between the AKP and the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). He argues that while “the MHP has been very critical of certain policies of the AKP” and “the danger in a long-running coalition with the AKP government is that the MHP might lose some of its previous strength… it may get eaten up,” an alliance with the AKP is the MHP’s only opportunity to govern. “They just want some share of power,” he adds.

The AKP’s increasingly nationalist and conservative positions would make an AKP-MHP coalition a good ideological fit. As Yılmaz’s comments imply, though, the AKP may end up treating the MHP more as a branch of the main party than as an independent partner. While the formation of a coalition would remove the political incentive to foster instability, hopefully motivating the AKP to work on reducing the violence, an alliance with the MHP would not necessarily induce the AKP to change its politics. Many MHP members are anti-Kurdish, and even if the party leadership wished to curtail the president’s ambitions, they would have little power within the alliance. Therefore, suppression of independent media that criticizes the regime, control of the judiciary, and hostility toward opposition groups would likely continue.

As the Oct. 10 suicide attack and the many other incidents in the preceding months have demonstrated, significant government effort will be necessary to prevent terrorism, curtail violence, and reduce animosity between different political factions. The results of the November election, and the coalition that emerges, could either drive Turkey toward stability or further ideological polarization. The current turmoil throughout the country does not necessarily condemn Turkey to descend into chaos and further violence.

Reflecting on the events of the past few months, Yılmaz says, “I’m not pessimistic about this country. We might be having a few years of instability. We might be having one step backwards before two steps forward.” Hopefully for Turkey, the outcome in November will put a check on the ruling party’s authoritarian ambitions and lay the groundwork for an inclusive and comprehensive peace process.



Laurel Jarombek is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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