Turkey’s brittle democracy exposed by killing of 97 people

Suicide bombing this month at Ankara peace rally may further divide a society that has become increasingly authoritarian, says Andrew Finkel

THE date 10/10 is synonymous with Turkey’s most deadly terrorist attack — the day this month when two suicide bombers killed 97 people who were gathering outside the Ankara train station to attend a peace rally.

It will be another tragedy if the carnage fails to unite the country under a banner of grief, but only drives a wedge still deeper into an already divided society, thus serving the bombers’ ends.

The other concern is that violence will fuel a growing authoritarianism in Turkey. In recent months, the country has witnessed events incompatible with a democratic market economy. There have been news blackouts on subjects (including the bombings) that the public has a right to know about, the detention of journalists and citizens for insulting the president on social media, anti-government television stations being denied rebroadcasting platforms and thus forced off the air, judges and prosecutors being tried for decisions the government doesn’t like, and towns caught up in the Kurdish conflict being put under siege.

Yet it was not all that long ago that pundits speculated on whether there was a limit to the role Turkey — a Nato stalwart and EU aspirant — could play in the world. Now, the question is whether Turkey can pull itself back from the brink. Once upon a time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seen as a man who respected the market and who understood that the political centre was where elections were won. Now, he is viewed as a polarising figure, unable to share power even with his own prime minister.

Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate writer, expressed his fears, in a recent interview with La Republica, that Turkey was in danger of returning to the 1970s — an era of near civil war.

Most law enforcement experts, including government sources, agree that the likely perpetrators of the Saturday-morning bombings were acting at the behest of the Islamic State. The victims, many of them young, were protesting the resurgence of violence in Turkey’s largely Kurdish south-east. Kurdish militia, active on the Syrian side of the border, are among Islamic State’s most effective opponents. The issue is complicated by the Turkish government’s decision to halt a two-year-old peace process with its own Kurdish separatists, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

While the government argues that the process had collapsed of its own accord, many suspect that Erdogan was only too happy to see a controlled slide into sectarian chaos, as a way of rallying nationalist support ahead of a general election on November 1. The Ankara protesters were demonstrating against these policies. So for the government to more than hint that the PKK worked hand-in-hand with its arch-foe, Islamic State, to cause the blast, is counter-intuitive.

The waters are murkier still. The Turkish government has to confront suspicions openly voiced by its own North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that it either supplied munitions, or (at the least) turned a blind eye, to Islamist militants, in an attempt to bring down Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Opposition parties now accuse the government’s softly-softly policy toward Islamic State of allowing the bombers to slip through the security net, if not actual complicity. Erdogan and his government portray themselves fighting dark forces at home and abroad. A more realistic assessment is that the president is fighting to maintain control.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) he founded lost its majority in an election last June. Rather than oversee a coalition government, Erdogan pushed for a snap election. If the electorate votes as before and AKP is forced to share power, then the huge executive apparatus he has created within a vast new presidential palace will begin to unravel.

So when the bombs went off, the government’s first reaction was not how to heal the wounds, but how to spin the political damage. In the first few days, Erdogan avoided the television cameras and left his ministers to dodge accusations that government negligence might have been to blame for the attack.

It is not something they did well. Kenan Ipek, the minister of justice, smirked at a reporter’s suggestion that someone accept responsibility and resign. Turkey often wags a finger at its allies, accusing them of trying to destabilise a country whose power they fear. The opposite is too often the case. Turkey’s strategic significance — it is the flood barrier between Europe and a tide of Syrian refugees — means that the West often turns a blind eye, in the hope that Turkey maintains a steady course. If the bombings have a lesson, it is that this policy is no longer an option. Turkey has lost its anchor and is in danger of going adrift. If there is a silver lining to the tragedy, it is the hope that the election will force the politicians into a coalition. In the 1990s, unstable coalitions were pointed to as a source of weakness. As an alternative to rule by executive fiat, such an outcome may be Turkey’s only hope.

Andrew Finkel has been based in Istanbul for 20 years. He is a founder of P24, an association to support independent journalism in Turkey. His latest book, Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know, is published by OUP.


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