As violence in Turkey soars, concern for election security

The toll from clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists has far surpassed the last such outbreak, as PKK activity has expanded to urban centers.

Yagiz Karahan/Reuters
Supporters of ultra-nationalist groups shout slogans during a protest against recent Kurdish militant attacks on Turkish security forces, in Istanbul, Turkey, September 8.

The conflict between Turkey and Kurdish separatists is seeing a surge of violence that far exceeds the last such outbreak in hostilities, fueling concerns it cannot be contained before snap Turkish elections in November.

In an echo of the darkest days of the long-running Kurdish insurgency, 14 Turkish police officers were killed Tuesday in a roadside bomb attack near the Azerbaijan border, and the government stepped up its campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with intensive airstrikes and a rare ground incursion into northern Iraq.

On Sunday, PKK attacks also claimed the lives of 16 Turkish soldiers, the military said, the highest losses in Army ranks since the peace process collapsed in July. Kurdish militants, who sometimes inflate the death tolls of their attacks, boasted of killing 31 Turkish troops.

Turkish special forces, meanwhile, sent two units into northern Iraq in pursuit of 20-strong groups of PKK militants, according to the Turkish Dogan news agency. The cross-border operation coincided with intensive air raids in which more than 50 Turkish jets hit PKK targets in Iraq. The six-hour operation killed “35 to 40 terrorists, according to preliminary findings,” Anatolia news agency said. 

On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pledged to “wipe out” the PKK – which the European Union, United States, and Turkey designate as a terrorist organization.

“The mountains of this country, the plains, highland, cities will not be abandoned to terrorists,” Mr. Davutoglu told journalists. “You cannot discourage us from our war on terror.”

In all, seven weeks of clashes between Turkey and the PKK in the southeast of the country have left at least 202 people dead – 107 security officials, 58 PKK insurgents, and 37 civilians, the International Crisis Group counted using open sources. That is double the toll between July and September 2011, when Turkey last witnessed a significant surge in such violence.

“The recent conflict between Turkey and the PKK is much more severe than the cycle of violence that erupted in 2011,” says the group’s Turkey analyst, Nigar Goksel. One of the reasons for this difference, she says, is the expansion of PKK activities to urban centers from the rural areas where they historically were focused.

Regional dynamics – with both Turks and Kurds fighting the self-described Islamic State – are adding to the stakes of the intensified hostilities, as are upcoming elections in Turkey.

“With elections nearing now, it is all the more worrisome, because the security of elections is also in question,” adds Ms. Goksel. “The opportunity presented by the last election for the Kurdish nationalist movement to become part of the system has become lost.” 

The Pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party garnered 13 percent of the national vote in June, depriving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its overall majority in parliament. Fresh elections were called for Nov. 1 after the AKP failed to form a coalition government, but few expect radically different results. 

The severity of clashes in the predominantly Kurdish southeast has also raised concerns over poll security there. The violence has spilled over to other regions, with nationalist mobs venting their anger over PKK attacks on Kurdish individuals and symbols. On Monday, “there were 128 premeditated attacks on our buildings,” Figen Yusekdag, co-chairman of the People's Democratic Party, told local media.

No one seems to expect the violence to abate before elections, although the PKK has historically pulled back during polling time.

“The violence is on such a high level that it’s likely to continue right up to elections,” says Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. “At this time point it would be useful to have some outside mediation.”

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