Turkish voters will go to the polls on November 1, still reeling from the horrific bombings at a peace demonstration in Ankara on October 10.
The labour, peace and democracy rally in Ankara was planned as an intervention into the cycle of conflict that has engulfed the country since the parliamentary elections in June. Those who gathered did not get the chance to shout their calls for peace. A dual explosion went off, leaving at least 97 dead and more than 500 wounded.
In the aftermath of the attack, there have been mass protests against the government. The public anger, it seems, is being directed not at the perpetrators of the attack but at the people in charge of the country.
This is because the Ankara attack was not an isolated event. It is the latest link in a long chain of assaults against democratic forces in Turkey. Outrage is directed against the government precisely because the culprits of the previous attacks have not been held to account.
Turkish authorities are reportedly focusing on Islamic State militants as the main suspects in the bombing. Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has already stated, though, that the government is also considering the “usual suspects”. That means the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).
If these swift official statements were intended to reassure the public that the government is determined to identify the culprits and bring them to justice, they failed spectacularly.
Since the Ankara attack, dozens of protest meetings and rallies have taken place across the country. These have been aimed squarely at criticising the interim AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
At first glance, this collective burst of anger could be interpreted as a condemnation of the initial official response from the government. Interior minister Selami Altınok had angered many by initially rejecting any suggestion that there had been failures in security preparations for the rally on October 10 – a view echoed by deputy prime minister Tuğrul Türkeş. Eyewitnesses and amateur video footage provided a damning account of the security forces’ questionable but all-too-familiar response. It has even been reported that the police fired tear gas at people trying to lay flowers at the scene a few hours after the attack.
Yet this customary shirking of responsibility and the abuses of police power are not the main reasons that thousands are chanting “murderer Erdoğan!” or carrying banners that blame the state for the deaths of those gathered in Ankara.
A turbulent year
It is important to contextualise the Ankara bombings within the cycle of violence that has gripped Turkey since the June election. This vote marked the end of an era. The AKP saw its vote share drop 10% and lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. The HDP won an impressive 13% of the vote, securing 80 seats in the national parliament.
This new parliamentary dynamic prevented the AKP from introducing a controversial presidential system designed to radically extend Erdoğan’s powers. Incapable of accepting this electoral mandate, the party blocked the formation of a coalition government and forced a new election.
Ever since, a climate of insecurity has pervaded. In July, 32 youth activists were killed in an Islamic State-linked attack in Suruç. Many people believe no serious investigation has been conducted into the attack.
After an alleged PKK cell attacked police officers in the aftermath of Suruç the AKP duly shelved the peace process that has been underway since 2012. By joining the US-coordinated strikes against Islamic State, the government gained a convenient pretext to launch strikes against the PKK and unleashed an intense crackdown on Kurdish activists. This triggered further retaliatory PKK attacks against Turkish security forces.
As the conflict intensified, the AKP’s hostile rhetoric against the HDP and other opposition forces assumed a fully undemocratic character. Senior party figures blamed the election results and the ensuing hung parliament for the country’s rapid descent into violence.
A mandate in tatters
As a result of all this, the public has little faith in the government’s willingness to conduct a transparent investigation into what has happened in Ankara. This suspicion is mirrored by an almost equally forceful assumption that the AKP is complicit in the attacks against the Kurds, left-wing movements and other opposition forces. It has failed to prevent attacks against HDP offices all across the country and remained ineffective against Islamic State intrusions into Turkish territory.
This sentiment has been explicitly voiced by the HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş. He has openly wondered why the state has been unable (or unwilling) to properly investigate previous attacks and blamed the government for turning a blind eye to the people behind them. If the government’s past record is any indication, it is no surprise that the public is not optimistic about the prospect of a comprehensive and transparent investigation.
The June election was the first stage of a wholesale rejection of the AKP regime which has been defined by a continual erosion of democracy and an intensified authoritarian neoliberalism.
For a party that has always highlighted its electoral victories as the proof of its own legitimacy, the AKP has shown a remarkable disregard for the popular will. It has endorsed a reckless politics of exclusion.
The public outrage at the Ankara bombings demonstrates that it is the same politics of exclusion and violence that will be the party’s undoing. Barring a highly unlikely AKP victory (i.e. parliamentary majority) in the upcoming elections, the AKP’s authoritarian ambitions will continue to confront both a growing grassroots mobilisation and a parliamentary opposition spearheaded by the HDP.
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Author: Cemal Burak Tansel
Cemal Burak Tansel is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the editor of States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017) and has published peer-reviewed research articles in the European Journal of International Relations, New Political Economy, Review of International Studies, Globalizations, South European Society and Politics and The South Atlantic Quarterly.