Bombings, Bans and the Ballot-box – Turkey on Edge

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People stand and gaze at the site of Saturday's twin bombings, the most deadly in Turkey's history. October 14, 2015Credit: AP

No words can express the tragedy that hit Turkey last Saturday, when over 100 people were killed and hundreds more injured following a twin suicide-bomb attack at a peace rally in the capital Ankara. The rally was sponsored by labor unions, heavily attended by the mostly Kurdish left HDP party, and joined by a symbolic representation from the main opposition party, the CHP.

Just hours after the attack, the Turkish government declared an official three-day mourning period in recognition of the nation’s largest terrorist attack ever. The finger of blame is increasingly being pointed at Islamic State, or ISIS, sympathizers. However, rather than uniting Turkey, the bombing only has strengthened existing divisions.  

After the initial shock of the sheer scope of the bombing, anger was the reaction of many to the bombing - directed at the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the religiously conservative AKP interim-election government, led by the Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. For many Turkish citizens it was no surprise that such an attack had happened to begin with.  

Over the course of the last few months, the mostly Kurdish HDP has been the target of violent attacks, including a deadly bomb attack at their election rally just two days before the June 7 parliamentary elections, and an ISIS linked-suicide attack targeting a socialist youth group affiliated with the HDP on July 20, killing 33. These major security breaches made it clear to all that another attack was highly likely. Last month, HDP offices around Turkey were vandalized and burnt to the ground in racist attacks, with the police remaining largely indifferent.

Of course, things soured for Erdogan’s AKP following those June elections, when it lost its parliamentary majority, and the HDP crossed the 10% voter threshold. This lead to political deadlock, since the AKP was not able to form either a coalition with the main opposition CHP, or a narrow government with the nationalist MHP, leading the country to snap-elections to be held on November 1.

Both Erdogan and Davutoglu have done their utmost to delegitimize the HDP, a campaign that began even before the June general elections, once it was clear that the HDP would not support Erdogan’s quest to allocate further extensive powers to the presidency that he holds. Following the elections, the embryonic peace process facilitated by Kurdish MPs between the outlawed Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, and the Turkish state collapsed, both sides now fully immersed in fighting each other.  

Following the Ankara attack, HDP’s head, Selahattin Demirtas, lashed out at the government claiming not only was it delinquent in preventing the bombing but that members of the state institutions were also complicit in the attack. No evidence was provided, but for some in Turkey such a damning accusation didn’t seem so far from an obvious truth; many others believe that Ankara has consistently turned a blind eye to ISIS sympathizers, with fatal results.

While the AKP denies these claims as completely preposterous, Turkey’s long history of its intelligence services working within its own autonomous and unaccountable set of rules fuels such claims. Indeed, on Wednesday an Ankara court upheld the government’s request for a complete media blackout on the bombing (covering “all kinds of news, interviews, criticism and similar publications in print, visual, social media and all kinds of Internet media”) only heightening the suspicion that few details will ever come to light. The ban came into effect just as reports that the suicide bombers had been identified; both were known to the  police and intelligence services, one suspect's brother is said to have committed a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS only three months earlier 

The fear that the full account of the attack will never come to light is hardly unfounded in recent Turkish history: in the past, when the media was banned from reporting on specific events, such as the 2011 Uludere affair (34 Kurdish civilians mistakenly believed to be PKK terrorists killed in an airstrike), or the 2014 alleged transfer of Turkish arms to Islamist radical groups in Syria, perhaps even to ISIS, the censorship seemed to have been aimed at covering up government complicity, with the benefit of a complete lack of transparency.

The media ban is the latest expression of an accelerating clampdown on a free press in Turkey. Just a day before the bombing the editor of the English-language newspaper Todays Zaman, Bulent Kenes, was arrested on live television for allegedly “insulting” Erdogan, while two other journalists joined a long list of other citizens found guilty of insulting Erdogan. Fortunately this week Kenes was released but still faces prison if found guilty.

Sadly, the Ankara bombing victims make up just part of Turkey’s rampant death toll during the last few months. Since the June elections, over 600 Turkish citizens have been killed, whether in terrorist attacks, or Turkish security forces by the PKK, or in operations carried out by the Turkish army in the southeast of the country which is under partial military curfew, or PKK fighters (who are also Turkish citizens) killed by the army. Indeed, during the elections Erdogan insisted that only an absolute AKP majority would ensure Turkey’s “peaceful” transition to a new presidential system, leaving many to believe that he was actually threatening the electorate, and that things could get messy if it did not give the AKP a clear majority. Regardless of what he actually meant, his prediction seems to have been right on.

The AKP has radically failed on numerous fronts. If it had not been for the main opposition CHP leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose leadership bridges the country’s dangerous political polarization, and the determination of the opposition parties, Turkey could have very well have run off the rails of democracy by now. However, a culture of fear is consolidating in Turkey, and its effects will reverberate not only over the coming fortnight preceding the general elections, but in the weeks and months following it as well.

This week, Turkey’s national football team took on Iceland in the conservative city of Konya, an AKP stronghold. Jeers and whistles marred the moment of silence for those killed in Ankara. The lessons of the bombing have clearly still not been learnt.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv.

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