October 12, 2015
On Saturday, October 10th, two explosions at a demonstration at Ankara's main train station killed more than 100 people. The blast was the latest and most severe in a series of events that have highlighted growing political and ethnic tensions in Turkey. One way to understand the current situation is to see it in terms of three interwoven streams: internal political tensions, ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds, and the growing influence of ISIS along with the accompanying refugee crisis. While the three issues are inter-related it is possible to describe them individually which can help to show how they are contributing together to the current climate in Turkey.
1) Internal Political Tensions
The most recent national election in June 2015 brought a significant new development to the Turkish political scene. For the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, a predominantly Kurdish party was able to gain representation in parliament by crossing the 10% threshold required by Turkish law. The HDP, led by Selahattin Demirtas received more than 13% of the national vote, winning 80 of Turkey's 550 parliamentary seats.
In the months leading up to that election, Turkey's ruling AKP was campaigning to win a "super-majority" of 400 seats that would enable them to have enough votes to change the constitution. The proposed changes would dissolve the current two-tier system of president and prime minister, making the president the sole executive power. The current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was only recently himself the prime minister and has been the architect of the political success that his "moderate Islamist" AKP has enjoyed since splitting from its more religiously conservative counterpart in 2002. Turkey's voters have been polarized between the pro-Islamist voters and the anti-Islamist voters. But the anti-Islamist factions have been divided between nationalist, secularist, and socialist platforms and have been unable to stem the growing influence of the AKP.
The HDP recognized a strategic opening in the electoral block by campaigning not only on a platform of pro-Kurdish positions, but also championing a number of liberal causes such as freedom of speech and religion, and increased protections for gays and transgendered people. A significant segment of secularist and leftist voters also found the HDP to be a beacon of integrity in a system which has become flooded with cynicism over corruption. By lending their votes to the HDP and pushing that party over the 10% threshold, voters also ensured that the AKP would have a much harder time acquiring the super-majority they sought. That strategy was successful and the HDP won as many seats as Turkey's mainstream nationalist party, the MHP.
As a result, the AKP won only 258 seats, just shy of the 267 needed to form a government on its own. Ahmet Davutoglu, the AKP prime minister made an attempt to form a coalition government, but was unable to come to agreeable terms with the other parties. President Erdogan then exercised his right to call for an early election which will be held on November 1st.
In the meantime there has been a wide range of reactions to the success of the HDP. Many of Turkey's pro-military secularists and nationalists were appalled that a party with seemingly close ties with extremist Kurdish separatist groups like the PKK would now have representation in the government. The HDP has consistently denied any association with the PKK and has been an outspoken advocate of peace between Turks and Kurds. Many Kurdish and leftist voters, including an important segment of secularist voters, celebrated the election result and the consequent defeat of the AKP's grand strategy.
On November 1st a new national election will take place. That will signify the end of the shortest sitting parliament in Turkey's history. The key question in this election is whether increased tensions and violence between Turks and Kurds will make it more difficult for the HDP to again cross the 10% threshold and maintain representation in parliament.
2) Ethnic Tensions
The success of the HDP brought new attention to the spectrum of political aspirations of Kurdish groups around the country. And the situation was further complicated by the Kurdish groups that have been gaining influence, in part because of their role in combatting ISIS, just across the border in Syria and Iraq. In July, a suicide bombing in Suruc near the Syrian border killed 33 people at a pro-Kurdish demonstration, which in turn seemed to incite calls for retaliation among Kurdish extremis groups. A few weeks later the PKK were credited with the bombing of a police vehicle in the city of Van and a few weeks after that the police took control of the city of Cizre after the PKK again apparently attacked Turkish soldiers there. In response to these events "anti-terrorism" demonstrations took place around the country as people in the major cities sought to express their frustration at the growing unrest. Crowds gathered in Ankara and Istanbul, among other cities, mourning the deaths taking place, especially of Turkish soldiers.
Some in Turkey were already looking for connections between the success of the HDP and Kurdish separatist groups like the PKK who have a long history of violence against Turkish police and military personnel. From the other side, however, HDP supporters point out that increased tension between Turks and Kurds benefits the AKP government by making it harder for secularist voters to support a Kurdish party and accuse the government of scaring the country into a return to the AKP status quo.
3) ISIS and the Refugee Crisis
Just three days after the bombing in Suruc, Turkey allowed the U.S. to start using its bases and airspace to conduct an offensive against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. With the bombings in Suruc and Van, there was now increasing pressure for Turkey to take an active role in combatting ISIS and in September Turkey started its own campaign of airstrikes. However, Turkey saw this as a battle on two fronts: with the increasingly influential Kurdish separatist groups, some of whom were organizing just over the border in Syria and Iraq, and with ISIS itself. Turkey's airstrikes seemed to focus on PKK and PYD (the Syrian counterpart to the Kurdish separatist organization) strongholds. This led to intense criticism of the military's strategy by many commentators and a significant portion of the population in Turkey. Protests emerged and instances of unrest and violence increased in the east of the country. The Turkish government defended the strategy, pointing out that the PKK is a terrorist group that is contributing to the instability of the region. And this represents a difference of opinion about the role of the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.
The U.S. thinks of the Kurds as an important ally in the fight against ISIS and wants to include them in developing a long term strategy. The Kurds have been responsible for holding back ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq when no other organized forces seem capable or willing to risk the losses to engage in the battle on the ground. The U.S. has advocated a strategy that includes supporting armed Kurdish groups along the corridor between Turkey and Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government, on the other hand, has seen the Kurdish militias as a threat to stability in the region and in Turkey. They are willing to support the idea of a defended corridor along the border, but not if that corridor is occupied by Kurdish militias.
The growth of ISIS along with civil war in Syria have resulted in millions of people fleeing Iraq and Syria. Turkey now hosts at least 2 million refugees according to official statistics but the actual numbers may be even higher. This means that at least 3% of Turkey's population is now composed of refugees who have crossed into the country in the last two years. There has been a strain on infrastructure and resources around the country and the security risk is hard to calculate. Turkey's history of caution with the Kurds has resulted in a strategy that includes a network of refugee camps around the country. In June 2014 when ISIS had been slaughtering Kurds in the region around Mosul there were Kurdish families flooding into Turkish cities around the country, including into the capital, Ankara. A year later, while the presence of Arab refugees from Syria and Iraq is still acutely felt as families settle into neighborhoods and Arabic schools emerge, Kurdish refugees in Ankara are more scarce. The government has kept a policy of settling Kurdish refugees into closely guarded camps.
The October 10th Bombing and the November 1st Election
No one has claimed credit for the bombing that killed more than 100 people at a demonstration in Ankara on October 10th. The AKP government has hinted that it might have been an ISIS attack or an extremist Kurdish group. And they have previously claimed that the current tensions would have been avoided if they had won the 400 parliamentary seats that they had been seeking. It seems politically convenient to blame ISIS, but it doesn't seem like there are very good reasons to believe that the Islamic State would bomb a demonstration in Ankara. ISIS has been known to focus on strategic targets, not symbolic ones. They want to expand their territory and defend its borders. It's hard to see what strategic value this crowd of demonstrators would have in their agenda. Also, ISIS doesn't shy away from taking credit for their actions, and they haven't done so in this case. It also seems unlikely that a Kurdish group would bomb a crowd that was convened largely by the HDP, a Kurdish party, and included many Kurds. It is not unfathomable that a Kurdish extremist group is angry that the HDP is advocating peace and that they hope to polarize the Kurds agains the Turkish government, but again, no group has taken credit. Demirtas, the leader of the HDP, has pointed out that the government benefits from the deaths at this rally and several others have also hinted that the government itself could be behind the bombing. That also requires a high level of conspiracy that seems unlikely on the surface. Another possibility, which is also only a speculation, is that a Turkish nationalist group was looking for an opportunity to further polarize Turks against Kurds and to create an atmosphere of fear in which it would be difficult to vote for a Kurdish party in November.
A key political question, then, is whether the bombing has made it harder for the HDP to keep its seats in November. If the accusations and hints of their opponents manage to connect HDP's success with growing national instability, then it may be harder for secularist voters to continue to support the HDP. On the other hand, if those accusations galvanize a reaction against the political establishment, and if voters see some connection between this bombing and the potential political benefit to the ruling government, then the HDP could be even stronger as a protest vote emerges.
For an accompanying infographic describing this situation, click here: