Turkey braced for bitter elections after deadly attacks
Conflict with Kurds drags nation into political turmoil verging on civil war
A supporter of the ruling AK Party holds a scarf with a slogan that reads, “Man of the nation – Ahmet Davutoglu”, in reference to the prime minister, during an election rally in the central Anatolian city of Konya, on Friday. Photograph: Umit Bektas/Reuters
Turkey goes to the polls on Suday for the second time this year following months of fractious political wrangling, deadly bombings and a return to war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.
Since a general election in June that that saw the the Kurdish-aligned Peoples Democratic Party’s (HDP) take a parliamentary majority away from the ruling AK Party for the first time, Turkey has descended into a state of political flux bordering on civil war.
Under the guise of targeting Islamic State-linked jihadists operating from across the border in Syria, the state has reignited the conflict with the PKK, with more than 140 police and 2,400 Kurdish militants killed in tit-for-tat attacks since July. This week, Turkish air strikes targeted Kurdish militias in Syria for the first time.
With the prize of a parliamentary majority that would allow it to govern unencumbered at stake, the AK Party and its former leader, President Tayyip Erdogan (inset), have focused their election message on the stability previously enjoyed in Turkey.
In the Istanbul district of Esenler, foreign jihadists have used the city’s main bus terminal to travel onwards to Syria, flaming a war that has ruined Erdogan’s ambitions for a dominant role for Turkey in the Middle East. In this district, the AK Party won 55 per cent of the vote last June – one of the highest margins in the city.
Student Jamal Yildirim (20) says the government could have done more to prevent the October 10th Ankara bombing, which killed 100 people, but still plans to vote for the AK Party. “I share their ideology and I think they are best positioned to develop the country in the future,” he says, sitting in an Esenler square.
For Songul Akcay (41), who runs a textile business, the memory of life before the AK Party came to power in 2002 is difficult to shake. “There was rubbish in every street, no water or electricity. People here had to walk 10 kilometres to take a bus. Erdogan is smart and powerful,” she says. “He has changed the country around.”
The AK Party has promised to increase the monthly minimum wage by a third to 1,300 liras (€400), it appealed to young voters by pledging to provide free internet and even unveiled plans for a match-making agency for singles.
Observers outside Turkey will be monitoring the outcome closely. European Union leaders see Turkey as the most important actor in keeping refugees and migrants from entering the EU. It was in this context that German chancellor Angela Merkel visited this month.
However, Merkel’s stopover, to promise billions of euro in aid and the reopening of European Union membership talks in return for Ankara’s acquiescence in stopping refugees from entering Greece, raised eyebrows in Germany and elsewhere in light of Turkey’s increasingly undemocratic slide.
Reporters and editors critical of the Turkish government have been arrested and beaten on the streets by mobs, while on Wednesday, an Ankara court shut down two major television channels. Rights groups say the country’s judiciary and police forces have become tools for the authorities.
For the HDP and its largely Kurdish support base, the period that followed the June elections should have been one of celebration. The party won 80 parliamentary seats and Kurds and minority rights supporters succeeded in opening a new chapter of plural politics that would give Turkey’s 14 million Kurds a political voice.
Instead, the HDP party and Kurdish communities in Turkey’s southeast have been left reeling. HDP offices across the country have been attacked by nationalist youths and the party has cancelled all election rallies fearing further attacks.
“We are face to face with deaths and war, with this bitter truth every day,” HDP co-chair, Selahattin Dermitas, told reporters on Tuesday. The party is still expected to garner enough votes though to keep its place in parliament.
The October 10th Ankara bombing – Turkey’s deadliest
terrorist attack – was the second massacre of peace-seeking Kurdish activists and civilians in three months. With the government investigation yet to produce charges against any suspects, and with military operations on Kurdish towns and villages causing the deaths of several civilians recently, Kurds are feeling increasingly under siege.
Some fear the government’s goal is to see the HDP charged with links to the PKK, a move that would banish it from parliament and likely result in the return of the AK Party’s majority. The government’s disdain for the HDP and Kurdish-related terrorism has been delivered via state television, which has produced dozens of hours of AK Party broadcasting.
In the eastern city of Kars, where the HDP and AK Party are set to battle it out for first place on Sunday, the streets are littered with construction trucks ferrying bricks to new apartment blocks. Given the uncertain security situation in the region, though, few are willing to talk politics.
“It is a sensitive issue, talking about the elections,” said restaurant owner Mustafa, who declined to provide his surname. “We only want peace here, we don’t talk about who supports who. We are all Turks, and that’s enough.”