Turkey bombing aftermath: Divides deepen over Erdogan ahead of vote

In this increasingly polarized nation, an Oct. 10 suicide bombing that killed 102 appears to have hardened social and political divisions. Turks vote Nov. 1.

Emrah Gurel/AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second left, and his wife, Emine Erdogan, laid a wreath at the site of deadly Saturday explosions in Ankara, Turkey, Oct. 14. Accompanying them were the visiting president of Finland, Sauli Niinisto, and his wife, Jenni Haukio.

The worst suicide bombing in Turkey’s modern history is casting a cloud of fear over the run-up to snap elections on Nov. 1.

No group has claimed responsibility for the Oct. 10 attack on a peace rally in the capital, Ankara, that killed 102 people. Government officials say the self-declared Islamic State (IS) is the prime suspect. Turkish media have identified the bombers as Turkish citizens who fought in Syria and were known to police.

In this increasingly polarized nation, the tragedy appears to have hardened social and political divisions. Activists on both sides are redoubling their efforts to convince voters to switch their allegiance, going door-to-door to win converts, though polls indicate little change from the last election in June. At stake is the political future of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is seeking a parliamentary majority to extend more than a decade of unbridled power.  

“I want this party not for 12 years, but for 100 years,” says Fikret Yeşilyurt, a kickboxing trainer who is among the legion of AKP supporters canvassing voters in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district.

“More than half of this country likes Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and that’s why he’s on the top – he’s a very strong person,” says Mr. Yeşilyurt, who wears a large ring with the symbol of the pre-World War I Ottoman army. Turks have been divided among themselves for 650 years, he says, responding to a question about the president’s us-versus-them politics, but Erdoğan has been “doing this for only five years.”

Critics and political opponents are calling Erdoğan a “murderer” and “dictator” with blood on his hands, and blame him for creating conditions for the surge in violence – by enabling the creation of jihadist groups in Syria and risking their violent blowback, and ratcheting up attacks against Kurdish separatists since July.

“We feel a big risk from bombs; terrorism is everywhere,” says Mustafa Kocagil, a retired biologist who campaigns for the secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Istanbul’s hip Cihangir district. “We are afraid of big markets, the underground metro, walking on the streets, in cafes. In Turkey, life is stopped because we are afraid.”

Repeat result?

Analysts expect the upcoming vote to change little from a June 7 election result in which a pro-Kurdish party made it into parliament with 13 percent of the vote, depriving the AKP of its ability to rule alone for the first time since 2002.

A repeat result would force the AKP to form a coalition government. Erdoğan has claimed that if an AKP majority had been elected last June – winning perhaps 400 deputies of the 550 seats in parliament – there would have been no violence, and the “situation today would have been very different.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has called on Turks to restore single-party government to “fight both the terror plague and economic challenges.”    

Polls conducted just prior to the explosions point to the AKP taking some 41 percent of the vote and failing to regain their majority.

Politicians and voters alike are conflating their views of Erdoğan – as the source of all good in Turkey, or of all evil – with a new sense of vulnerability from IS jihadists. At the same time, Turkish forces are engaged in renewed fighting against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants that has left hundreds dead since July, ending a years-long peace process.

Mr. Davutoğlu has suggested that both IS and the PKK are responsible for the Ankara bombing, lumping those enemies of Turkey together, even though IS is fighting all Kurdish groups across the northern regions of Syria and Iraq.

In pre-dawn raids in Istanbul on Sunday morning, police detained some 50 IS-linked suspects, all of them non-Turkish citizens, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.

Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is likely to largely hold its 13 percent support, again preventing the AKP from being able to rule alone. No significant poll results have yet been released since the bombing; the Ankara chief prosecutor’s office issued a temporary gag order preventing Turkish media from reporting details of the investigation.

Stagnancy in politics

Indeed, the decade-long trend in Turkey of voters attaching their identity to one party has only deepened. The AKP transformed politics when it came to power in 2002, after a string of elections in the 1980s and 1990s in which different parties won each time.

The AKP, by contrast, reflected more than any previous party the identity of a plurality of Turkish voters – Islamic leaning, but also progressive in many ways with a modern economic outlook, says İhsan Daği, a professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

“Since 2002 you have this stagnancy in Turkish politics because … voters identified themselves with popular political parties,” says Mr. Daği, explaining why Turkey again is likely to have a hung parliament with the AKP taking the largest share. Its once-commanding lead has been eroded by anti-Erdoğan protests and corruption scandals in 2013, and declining economic growth.

“So you can change your views … but you cannot really change your identity overnight, or from June to November,” says Daği. “People stick to their parties, because their parties represent their identity.”

Personal attacks are daily election fodder

AKP officials reject personal attacks on Erdoğan, though they are critical daily fodder for the opposition. The term “murderer,” as chanted during some protests after the Ankara bombing, especially rankles says Ferşat Yildirim, the AKP’s district president in Beşiktaş.

“My president is respected by the people of the world,” he says. “That word is not suitable for our president because he is trying to look after all Muslims – how can he kill his own people?”

Referring to the Ankara bombings, he adds: “These bombs were planned to kill a lot of people, to create big chaos to change people’s thinking. We talk to people about the situation before and after the June vote, how much worse it has got, and we will do this until the last minute.”

At the CHP office across town, the words “Erdoğan” and “dictator” are used interchangeably. CHP pendants are strung from the third-floor office across Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s main pedestrian avenue.

“Erdoğan wanted to be a sultan, but he didn’t get yes from the people and he got very angry,” says Tülay Bozkurt, a former 5-star hotel receptionist. She canvasses door to door for CHP, but says that changing minds is not easy among Turks with two distinct worldviews.

“Some people say, ‘You are right, Erdoğan is a killer, a murderer, a bad man and we won’t vote for him again,’” says Ms. Bozkurt. “Other people say, ‘We are with him until the end of our lives.’ There are many who are hungry and have no job, but say they love Erdoğan. I think they are crazy.”

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