Turkey has been the scene of terrorism and street violence off and on for decades, but the suicide bombings at a peace rally last Saturday that killed 97 people and wounded scores more is a new low, and has been rightly described as Turkey’s 9/11. As all who have been following Turkey’s descent into chaos know, the bombings came after months of political polarization between the government and everyone else but particularly the Kurds, fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK, Turkish airstrikes against ISIS, and a tightening crackdown on voices of dissent in Turkey of any sort. In the aftermath of the bombing, the government has issued a blanket media blackout, which is unlikely to help matters and will only sow more distrust and confusion. While no group has taken credit for the bombings, they were almost certainly the work of ISIS and deliberately targeted Kurdish political parties at the rally, so this is the latest in the never-ending fallout from the fight for Kobani earlier this year.
Steven Cook wrote a good post on Monday summing up the various conflicts tearing Turkish society apart, and they range from the political to the ethnic. While sometimes tragedy can bring a country together, as it certainly did in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks, in Turkey that dynamic does not seem to be emerging. The government is still practicing the demagoguery that has become its hallmark, and its rhetorical flourishes are reaching new heights of absurdity. Yesterday, Prime Minister Davutoğlu claimed that there is a secret agreement between Assad, ISIS, and the PKK to eliminate all anti-Assad forces and share the Syrian border with Turkey. I’ll leave it to you to ponder for a moment how anyone can seriously think that ISIS is in league with the regime that it is trying to replace, or even more fantastically how ISIS and the PKK sat down in a room together and agreed to live and let live despite the raging war going on between ISIS and the Kurds in Kobani and other places. Given that Davutoğlu, in trying to demonstrate Turkey’s distance from ISIS in response to theories that the Turkish government was complicit in the rally bombings, said on Wednesday that the difference between ISIS and Turkey is 360 degrees, perhaps we should just assume that nothing he says is to be taken at face value.
Ribbing of the prime minister aside, the question facing Turkey is what comes next? This would be a challenge for any country that had just experienced a tragedy and was already riven by political and sectarian strife, but in Turkey’s case there is the added variable of the November 1 redo of June’s election. A combination of President Erdoğan’s refusal to let go of his dream of a super-empowered presidency and bad blood between the AKP and the other parties combined to prevent a government from being formed after the AKP failed to win an outright majority last time. If the polls are to be believed, Turkey is headed for the exact same result in November, and this time it will come with the added pressure of more bad blood between the AKP and HDP, more pressure from the government on journalists, a reinvigoration of the government’s war against the Gülenists, and conspiracy theories about the bombing flying fast and furious. One cannot discount either that there will be more terrorism in Turkey in the next two weeks, which would only add to the pressure building. It was obvious after June what Erdoğan’s strategy was for November, namely to ramp up the fight with the PKK and foster a sense of insecurity so that AKP politicians could then rail against what happens when voters do not hand the AKP a majority. The problem is that the tiger of violence and uncertainty is beyond the AKP’s control, and if anything discontent with the AKP has only deepened.
Should the AKP again fail to win a majority – the outcome that nearly everyone is expecting – there are two ways this can go. One is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will accept that the era of coalition government has returned, inject some humility into their pronouncements and actions both public and private, and figure out how best to work with some combination of the CHP, MHP, and HDP (if the latter is still even a possibility given the demonization of Kurds and HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş that has occurred) to get the country back on track. This can involve a step up or a step down in the battle against Kurdish nationalism depending on whom the AKP partners with, although I find the latter to be increasingly unlikely. The second way this can go is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can take the same path they took following the June vote, which is to blame all sorts of enemies foreign and domestic for their troubles, crack down further on internal dissent, continue to threaten the PYD – and the U.S. and Russia for allegedly supporting the PYD – and refuse to see the writing on the wall about Kurdish autonomy in Syria, and ally with the MHP in order to form a government and push an extremely narrow nationalist agenda.
One can look at Turkey’s history of democratic institutions and the recent kneecapping of the military in order to prevent its intervention into the political system and assume that Turkey’s history demonstrates that it will emerge from the darkness into the sunlight, that logic will prevail following the horrific Ankara bombings, and that Erdoğan and company will realize a losing hand they see one. Alternatively, one can look at Erdoğan and the AKP’s history, see what they have done once unencumbered by significant checks on their power, and observe their behavior in the last few months alone, and then come to the opposite conclusion about Turkey’s future.
After my assessment following the June election that it did not mean the end of Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics and that Turkish politics was not about to immediately change for the better, Cengiz Çandar took me to task in Al-Monitor for my prediction that Erdoğan had not been made irrelevant, writing, “The summer of 2015 may be messy and full of uncertainty, but Turkey will not be at the mercy of one man and one party.” As it turns out, Turkey in fact was at the mercy of one man and one party, and that one man and one party prevented a coalition government from forming, actively aggravated tensions with Turkey’s Kurdish minority through constant incitement against the HDP and its politicians, and has left Turkey in a much more dangerous position than it was four months ago. Turkish society is on the brink of eruption, and the specter of further ISIS terrorism, further PKK targeting of Turkish military and police, and the occasional leftist DHKP-C attack mean that the pressure is only going to increase. The aftermath of this election is going to recreate the precise environment as existed the day after the last election, and the open question is what Erdoğan – and Erdoğan alone – is going to decide to do, since much like last time, this hinges on whether he accepts the death of his presidential system and an AKP victory without AKP dominance with grace, or whether he continues to wield his authority in the service of himself and his party rather than his country. Given what we have seen so far, I am pretty sure I know which option he will choose.