Turkey In Crisis

How did an election outcome that was supposed to have ushered in a new era of democratization and peace, instead lead the state into turmoil?

CHP supporters rally in Istanbul's Kadikoy district. Photo: Monica Ma, 2015

Turkey’s June 7th parliamentary election results garnered powerful news headlines that envisaged democracy and a brighter future for Turkey; the New York Times published an editorial proclaiming “Democracy Wins in Turkey”. Few predicted the violence that has since followed.

For the first time in Turkey’s history, a pro-Kurdish party—the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—had passed the country’s electoral 10% threshold to gain seats in parliament. For the first time since 2002, the ruling conservative AKP party had lost their majority in the Turkish Parliament. As results were revealed, Kurdish voters celebrated what they perceived as a new era for Kurds in Turkey, while many Turkish voters sighed a breath of relief at what they saw as an overdue rebuke of Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism.

Now – just 5 months later – the country appears on the brink of civil war as it heads into a snap election on November 1, 2015. The peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has completely broken down. Since the cease fire collapsed, around 153 Turkish soldiers and 136 PKK insurgents have been killed in Turkey. While in total, more than 2,000 Kurdish fighters, Erdogan claims, have been killed by Turkish military operations and aerial bombardments in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

How did an election outcome that was supposed to have ushered in a new era of democratization and peace, instead lead the state into turmoil? The current violence is the cumulation of two coinciding developments: the rise of autonomous Kurdish territories in Syria, and the rise of the HDP. 

Rising Tensions

Tensions between the Kurdish community and the AKP had been re-surging months before the election, as fighting between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State intensified along the Syrian-Turkish border. One student from Turkey voiced the belief of many in the Kurdish community, “[The Turkish government] would prefer an ISIS takeover to a Kurdish takeover across the border. IS knows this and is using the ethnic division within Turkey to strategically attack the Kurds.”

One month after the election, a suicide bombing in Suruc dealt a final blow to Turkey’s uneasy peace. The attack killed 33 student activists in the predominantly Kurdish town. The Turkish government quickly blamed the Islamic State for the attack, but many Kurds placed the blame on the Turkish government--accusing it of creating a permissive environment which allowed IS to operate extensively in Turkey.

The Islamic State...is using the ethnic division within Turkey to strategically attack the Kurds.

When IS threatened to take over the Syrian town of Kobane in 2014, many Kurds demanded government intervention to save the predominantly Kurdish town from a possible massacre. Not only did the Turkish government reject demands for intervention, it also prevented Kurdish fighters from crossing the border to defend the town, infuriating the Kurdish community, whose critics had long alleged that the government was turning a blind eye to Islamic State fighters traveling across Turkey’s border with Syria.

The Suruc bombing quickly ended the two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government. Two days later, PKK insurgents killed two police officers as retaliation against what they viewed as the Turkish state’s complicity. Seizing upon the aggression, the Turkish government declared an all-out campaign against terrorism directed against both the Islamic State and the PKK. They conducted wide-sweeping arrests of thousands of alleged terrorists and began extensive air campaigns across the border into Syria and Iraq. Yet, to the frustration of the United States and NATO, it quickly became apparent that Turkey’s main target was not the Islamic State, but the PKK. 

Aslı Bâli, a UCLA Professor of Law notes the asymmetry in Turkey’s campaign on terror, “Thousands of people have been arrested, and of them around 130 are supposedly Islamic State related. All the rest are Kurdish activists. So Kurdish activists are killed in Suruc, and the government’s response is not to go after the perpetrators but rather to go after those aligned with the victims in mass arrests of Kurdish activists. It’s an astonishing thing.”

Erdogan himself does not dispute the priorities of the government, clearly stating on CNN that “the PKK is the number one threat and Daesh [using an Arabic acronym for IS] is the second.”

The Breakdown of Coalition Talks

In concurrence with the breakdown of the peace process, talks to form a new coalition government also broke down. 

Erdogan and the AKP had campaigned on a promise to bring strong leadership to Turkey by transitioning Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. To do so, Erdogan needed a two-thirds majority. The success of the socialist and pro-Kurdish HDP—bolstered by strong support from women, LGBT and other minority groups—derailed Erdogan’s presidential ambition.

Yet, despite the rejection of the presidential system by the electorate and opposition parties, the AKP made support for the constitutional change a main condition for forming a new government in coalition with one of the other parties. When the coalition talks inevitably failed, the AKP refused to pass the mandate to the second leading party, and instead called for early elections in hopes of gaining a larger proportion of votes. 

“In the time since June 7, in pursuit of an additional proportion of the vote share, the government has cynically manipulated the country in the direction of a civil war against the internal Kurdish population,” argues Bâli.

To strengthen their position and bolster nationalist support ahead of the new election, the government adopted increasingly aggressive tactics: it declared a war on terror, sought to equate the HDP with PKK terrorism, escalated press censorship, arrested journalists and political leaders, and engaged in inflammatory speeches which have fanned nationalistic furor within Turkey. In predominantly Kurdish regions, the state conducted military operations and enforced strict 24 hour curfews which placed towns under siege-like conditions

The Ankara Bombing

The PKK is the number one threat and Daesh is the second. - President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The darkest point in the violence came on October 10, when another suicide bombing killed more than 100 peace activists during a peace rally in Ankara – the deadliest in republic’s history. Organized by leftist Turkish and Kurdish civil society organizations, in addition to the HDP, the rally was meant to protest the escalation of violence between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants. 

The attack has polarized Turkey. Both Kurds and Turks were shocked that such a devastating attack could happen in the nation's capital, and while the Islamic State is widely believed to be behind the bombing, many accuse the government of failing to provide adequate security for the rally.

“In Ankara, the reports that have emerged from that demonstration suggest that there was almost no security presence, even though the government knew that thousands of people were coming. Ordinarily, a demonstration of hundreds, or even dozens, draws a massive security presence in Turkey,” notes Bâli.

But despite the fact that most of the victims were Kurdish—and to the incredulity of the Kurdish community and many Turks—Erdogan has since attempted to implicate the PKK in the attack, further inciting Turkish nationalist furor.

The AKP’s Political Shift

The great irony is that until recently, AKP policies towards the Kurds had been the most liberalizing of any Turkish government. After gaining power, the AKP government had initiated a peace process with the PKK and adopted reforms which lifted many restrictions on Kurdish cultural rights. 

This has become an incredible missed opportunity, all the more shocking because the very party that created the opportunity is now dismantling it.

However, Bâli argues that the AKP’s Kurdish policy had always been tactical; it generated strong support for the AKP from the Kurdish electorate and the government was only willing to tolerate cooperation with Kurdish leaders so long as they were “willing to serve as a sort of junior partner in a broader strategy that the Turkish state determined,” she notes. The rise of autonomous Kurdish territories on Turkey’s border with Syria, coupled with the election of the HDP, forced the AKP leadership to change its political calculus.

In the aftermath of the June elections, it has become clear that the AKP was never strongly committed to the democratic and liberalizing ideologies it had once championed. With its hold on power seriously challenged, the party quickly returned to the repressive tactics of previous governments: divide and rule, reliance on the police state, curfews and censorship.

The latest polls show that the results of the upcoming election will likely be similar to the last election. Yet even if the HDP party passes the 10% threshold again, a peaceful resolution will largely be in the hands of the AKP, which is almost certain to win the greatest proportion of seats.

Given the current level of violence and polarization, is it hard to imagine how a peaceful resolution and an inclusive government can be built. The election of the HDP should have been one of the brightest points in Turkey’s history--instead, is resulted in a resurgence of violence that now threatens to draw Turkey back into civil war. 

“This has become an incredible missed opportunity, all the more shocking because the very party that created the opportunity is now dismantling it,” says Bâli.