Days after a suicide bombing, can Turkey pull back from the brink?

A protester is seen through a burning picture of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President Barack Obama during a protest against Saturday’s bombings in Ankara, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, October 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
A protester is seen through a burning picture of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President Barack Obama during a protest against Saturday’s bombings in Ankara, in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece, October 12, 2015. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

The date 10/10 is now synonymous with Turkey’s most deadly terrorist attack in history — the day this month when two suicide bombers killed 97 people gathering outside the Ankara train station to attend a peace rally. The greater tragedy will be if the carnage fails to unite the country under a banner of grief, but only serves the bombers’ ends of driving a wedge still deeper into an already divided society.

The other mounting concern is that violence will further 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 themselves) where the public has a clear right to know, the detention of senior journalists and ordinary citizens for insulting the president on social media, anti-government television stations being denied rebroadcasting platforms and thus gradually forced off the air, judges and prosecutors being put on trial for decisions the government doesn’t like, and entire 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 discipline of the market and who understood the political center is the place where elections are won. Now he is viewed as a polarizing figure, unable to share power even with his own prime minister.

Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate, 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, now 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 southeast. 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. It is these policies the Ankara protesters were demonstrating against.

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, to put it mildly, counter-intuitive.

The waters are murkier still. The Turkish government confronts suspicions openly voiced by its own North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that it either supplied munitions or (at the very least) turned a blind eye to Islamist militants in a concerted attempt to bring down Syrian 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 as fighting dark forces both 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 and 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 figuring out 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 be to blame for the attack. It is not something they did well. Indeed, Kenan Ipek, the minister of justice, reportedly smirked at a reporter’s suggestion that someone accept responsibility and actually resign.

Turkey often wags a finger at its own allies, accusing them of trying to destabilize a country whose power they fear. The opposite is too often the case. Turkey’s strategic significance — it is currently 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 outside an Ankara train station 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 outcome of the coming election will again force the politicians to come together in a coalition. Back 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 over twenty 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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