Who to blame?: What caused the Ankara Bombings?

by Uygar Baspehilivan, a second-year BA International Relations student at King’s College London.

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‘Halay’ is a traditional Turkish folk dance, that is performed by forming a circle or a line, while holding each other with the little finger or shoulder to shoulder or hand to hand with the last and first dancer holding a piece of cloth. It has been danced for centuries in Turkey, mostly at weddings and gatherings and is considered to be a symbol of unity in Turkish culture. Whenever it is danced, it brings back memories of joy and bliss; or at least it did, until 10th of October, when footage of a terrorist attack to peaceful protestors in Ankara surfaced the internet, showing the moment of attack in the midst of people dancing the halay. In the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history, the death of 106 people in central Ankara forever changed the meaning of halay in Turkish psyche, and the worst part is; we don’t know who to blame.

The Turkish-Kurdish conflict, although being a pre-eminent conflict in modern Turkish politics, had been in a hiatus for a couple of years after the start of the so-called ‘solution process’ between the Turkish government and the internationally recognised terrorist group PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party) led by Abdullah Ocalan. However, the general elections in 2015, witnessed a rapid re-escalation of the conflict, with the increasing popularity of the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in the young moderate left, and the downturn of the ruling party AKP (Justice and Development Party) due to its then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vastly criticised polarising policies and practice of excess police violence in Turkey’s internationally supported Gezi Parki protest. This is a classic case of declining and increasing power politics with a pinch of ethnic strife. Yet that little pinch of ethnic strife transformed the political problem into a potential civil war.

In June, the results of the general elections pointed towards a peaceful resolution of the political clash, with the AKP winning 41% (9% decrease from the last general election) of the votes yet losing its parliamentary majority and HDP receiving 13% of the votes and 80 seats at the parliament (With an ethnic group entering the parliament, this was a milestone in Turkish politics). AKP had to form a coalition and Turkey, for the first time in years, seemed to be on a road of moderation and cooperation. However, the president, in his newly built palace (costing 1.2 billion pounds) had different plans. Until today, Turkey’s presidential role had always been a representative one, ever since the death of its first president and founder Kemal Ataturk. Nonetheless, after becoming the president and giving up his role as prime minister to his close associate Ahmet Davutoglu, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, aspired to re-consolidate his role as Turkey’s primary leader and adopted a presidential system mirroring that of the U.S. This goal of his, however, was nearly impossible without a parliamentary majority, which now belongs to the HDP. Hence, the problem, according to Erdogan, was the increasing Kurdish popularity and the solution should be the re-ignition of Turkish-Kurdish ethnic conflict to consolidate the nationalist votes and decrease the votes going to the Kurdish party from the leftist youth.

The following two months saw Turkey at its least productive; with the moderate left main opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) and the right-wing nationalist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) striving to strike a deal with the AKP to play a role in the new government. However, a coalition government was not what AKP was seeking; for the passing of the presidential bill was a priority on the party’s agenda and the cries for national interest and domestic goodwill were merely ploys to strengthen the AKP’s authority. Popular media produced extended coverage of the coalition talks and the illusion of a co-operative spirit continued alongside with it, but most knew that these were going to be unsuccessful enterprises and that the clocks were ticking for a new election. The AKP needed the presidential bill to pass, and the way to achieve this was to regain parliamentary majority. On 24th of August, Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his decision to hold early elections on 1st of November. The Wall Street Journal, criticising the decision, reported; ‘This is the first time a president called for snap polls since Turkey became a republic in 1923, a move that could stoke further political turmoil at a sensitive time.’ The WSJ could never have been more correct; and in the following months after the decision, demolishing all hopes for a peaceful future that were built after the first elections, Turkey started to drift towards a civil war.

Sometimes, coincidences happen in politics. And sometimes, these coincidences seem to be more than what they appear to be on the surface. Only 4 days before President Erdogan declared his decision for early elections, Turkey witnessed a bombing attack in Suruc, Sanliurfa, killing 34 people, mostly of Kurdish ethnicity. Even though no organisation or group claimed to be responsible for the attack, it was immediately attributed to ISIS and Turkey declared a war on terrorism. On 26th of July, ‘Turkey’s air force has attacked Islamic State positions in Syria and Kurdish PKK militants in northern Iraq to defend the country’s security,’ Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu declared. Yet the problem that no one was addressing was that the PKK had not been a threat to Turkey’s security since 2009. Predominantly portrayed as a war against ISIS, the ratio of attacks on PKK bases to ISIS bases revealed a different side to the story. Attacks against ISIS were mostly side-lined by the media and the military itself. Instead, the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces) concentrated most of its attacks on PKK bases leading to the re-ignition of Turkish-Kurdish conflict. This coincidental attack was everything AKP needed at that moment: a reason to call for early elections, a way to decrease the Kurdish votes and a chance to rally nationalist votes.

In the months following the attacks, Turkey transformed into a state driven by a civil ethnic conflict, deaths of young soldiers were in the headlines daily and the rhetoric of the government only intensified the growing hatred between the opposing sides. In response, the Kurdish terrorist group PKK ended the ceasefire it declared in 2013 and started conducting attacks on the Turkish police and military in the Eastern Region.  This re-ignited the nationalist extremist sentiments of the Turkish right, and led to several civilian attacks on Kurdish citizens. With both sides in conflict with one another, President Erdogan made a highly disturbing comment, making it obvious that his supposed political impartiality was nothing but a ruse. He stated; “If we want the settlement process [to solve the Kurdish issue to succeed] we need to elect 400 deputies so that a party in firm control of the government can achieve it”. It was an undisguised political statement that was perceived from the opposing parties as a message of threat, saying ‘if you do not give AKP the parliamentary majority and indirectly cause the presidential bill to pass, this military conflict, that I ignited, between the Kurdish and the Turkish, will continue’.

The result of the elections on the 1st of November is unpredictable; will it, as Erdogan desires, decrease the HDP votes under the 10% mark and kick them out of their parliamentary seats or will it result with an even vaster downfall of AKP votes. One thing that is clear, however, is that the results will not stop Turkey from polarizing even more until it comes to a state of civil war. It cannot be avoided unless the AKP government escapes from the claws of Erdogan’s power-hungry ways and goes through compromises with HDP. In order to secure a stable state, it is inevitable for the HDP and the Kurdish minority to reconcile in the realm of daily Turkish politics.

On the 10th of October, in the midst of all these instabilities, the conflict with the PKK, the bombings of IS, the problem of the inflow of refugees and the larger involvement in the Syrian civil war, Turkish citizens were getting ready to say ‘stop’ to this. Before the peace rally, people gathered at the Ankara train station to march to Sihhiye. Whilst dancing to halay as a sign of solidarity, twin explosions killed at least 106 people and left 250 wounded, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history, right before the elections. Although blame was once again put on ISIS, these attacks were actually the ultimate culmination of the poorly made decisions and ‘coincidences’ that drove Turkey to this era of instability, which began in the summer of 2015. Aside from asking ‘how did we come here’, the question that is asked should be ‘could we have prevented this’ and the answer is a big YES. What Turkey turned into today, was not inevitable. A coalition government could have been easily formed, the Kurdish people could have been easily instated into Turkish politics and the politics of the Middle East (IS, Syria) would be as far to Turkey as it is to Europe. These ‘could’s and ‘would’s portray the grim reality of the current Turkish situation; This is not a problem of geopolitical position or sectarian violence or ideological conflict; this is a problem of power-politics, between a power-hungry president and an increasing Kurdish political assertiveness and the blame, whoever did the bombing attacks, should be acredited to the poor decision-makers within the state of Turkey.

Bibliography:

The Wall Street Journal

BBC

Seattle Times

The Guardian

The Atlantic

Cumhuriyet

Hürriyet

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