The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
On November 1, Turkish voters will head to the polls for the second national elections in less than half a year. After losing its 13-year majority in Turkey’s June 7 parliamentary elections, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forced the upcoming snap elections by failing to form a coalition government. Polls throughout the campaign have consistently shown that voter preferences have remained largely unchanged since June, but rising political violence could cause some late shifts.
One possibility is that center-right voters, who were sufficiently disgruntled with the AKP’s current authoritarian direction to eschew the party in the last election, will revert to it out of fear of prolonged instability. That could bring the AKP closer to the 276 seats it needs for a majority. Another is that the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party, will benefit from the backing of more secular centrist voters who hope that the CHP will exert a moderating influence on the AKP, restoring the stability and investor confidence needed for Turkey’s economic recovery. Even a small gain in the CHP’s electoral showing could boost the party’s chances to force the creation of an AKP-CHP national unity coalition.
The exact configuration of the future government, though, is almost beside the point; either way, the effort to stem the violence and prevent Turkey’s further drift into disorder will prove more difficult than either party has acknowledged during the election campaign.
Since the start this July of Turkey’s latest military offensive against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), observers have frequently made comparisons to the 1990s, when Ankara waged the so-called Dirty War against the PKK. Although the war was a drain on the national psyche as well as the country’s resources, the violence did not directly touch the daily lives of most Turks, being primarily confined to Turkey’s Kurdish regions. The new wave of violence—thanks to its nature, scale, and geographic distribution—could be far worse, presenting a more fundamental threat to Turkish cohesion than any seen since the late 1970s, when deadly political turmoil nearly plunged the country into a free fall.
To understand why the latest violence will be so hard to address, you need to go back to the last elections. On June 7, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) reached the historic milestone of becoming the first Kurdish-oriented party to be seated in parliament. The HDP’s 80 seats were primarily the result of approximately 1.5 million conservative Kurds switching their support from the AKP to the HDP. These voters were motivated by a perception that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AKP had abandoned the Kurdish Opening, an AKP initiative to address Kurdish grievances that Erdogan had launched as prime minister in 2009 and expanded in 2013.
Beyond losing the Kurdish vote, the AKP also failed to attract Turkish nationalist voters, who were repelled by the party’s initiation of peace talks with the PKK. In the recent election, they opted for the conservative Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which picked up 28 new seats.
Now, with a new vote in the offing, the AKP is looking to restore its majority by competing with the MHP to attract Turkish nationalists.Between the HDP’s triumph and the rise of the MHP at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the AKP lost 53 seats. That took away the AKP’s parliamentary majority and closed the door on Erdogan’s plan to change Turkey’s constitution in favor of a presidential system that would have given him unbridled executive power. Erdogan refused to allow his party to concede key ministries to the opposition or to forsake his plan for augmented presidential powers, thereby scuttling the AKP’s coalition negotiations. He also insisted that any power-sharing agreement would require a guarantee from the AKP’s coalition partner to forgo activating graft probes against Erdogan, his family, and his supporters. Now, with a new vote in the offing, the AKP is looking to restore its majority by competing with the MHP to attract Turkish nationalists.
Enter the escalation between the AKP and the Kurds. The wave of violence and civil unrest began on July 20 with a suicide bombing by militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Suruc, on the Syrian border in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. The attack, which targeted Turkish and Kurdish leftist activists en routeto assist in the reconstruction of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani, killed 34 and injured over 100. Reprisal killings by the PKK on Turkish police officers followed; the PKK claimed that the officers were in league with ISIS. Those attacks triggered the AKP caretaker government’s decision to discontinue two and a half years of peace negotiations with the PKK and launch a military campaign against the organization.
The current imbroglio does bear a superficial resemblance to Turkey’s Dirty War of the 1990s. In those years, the Turkish military conducted large-scale operations against the PKK and abetted the Islamist militants of Kurdish Hezbollah in a campaign on Kurdish and leftist activists meant to neutralize the PKK’s popular support. Today, the actors look the same: Islamist militants are fighting Kurds and leftists as the Turkish military conducts aerial bombings and commando assaults against PKK positions. And there is an element of intra-Kurdish violence in today’s struggle as well: ISIS’ attacks have focused on left-wing Kurdish targets, and about 65 percent of ISIS’ recruits from Turkey are ethnic Kurds.
For many observers, the parallel continues. In the 1990s, Ankara trained and funded the 4,000 militants of Kurdish Hezbollah to fight against the PKK and secular Kurds. Likewise, today, many Kurds believe that Ankara is in bed with ISIS. But any possible relationship between ISIS and elements within the Turkish state would differ in kind and scale from Ankara’s sponsorship of Kurdish Hezbollah. ISIS militants are not the state’s domesticated animals, unlike Kurdish Hezbollah, which was decimated in a day when the Turkish state chose to liquidate the organization in January 2000. Instead, the transnational Islamist militants of ISIS have broad international networks for recruitment and funding. Further, unlike Kurdish Hezbollah, which was confined to the southeast, ISIS operates in Turkey’s major cities, as the recent discovery in Istanbul of an ISIS child-training camp testifies.
The new generation of Kurdish militants that have entrenched themselves in the cities of Turkey’s Kurdish regions also poses a qualitatively different challenge to the Turkish state than the PKK did in the Kurdish countryside 20 years ago. As I’ve argued in these pages, the new Kurdish urban youth militias, although ostensibly affiliated with the PKK’s Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), resemble urban jihadist groups across the border in Iraq and Syria in their methods of mobilization and combat. In response to the challenge, in the closing weeks of the election campaign, the government placed cities and towns in Turkey’s southeast under curfew. For security reasons, it has also moved polling stations in this region, despite the objection of Turkey’s Supreme Election Board. Vote tampering, or even the perception of it—particularly if the HDP does not cross the ten percent electoral threshold needed to be seated in parliament—would reignite active conflict in Turkey’s Kurdish regions and perhaps even in Istanbul and Ankara.
No matter the outcome of the November vote, Turkey will be in for a rough ride.NATIONAL PROBLEMS
The fact that Turkey’s political violence will not be confined to the southeast was highlighted on October 10, three weeks before the election, when suicide bombers from ISIS attacked what organizers named the Labor, Peace, and Democracy rally in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The twin bombings killed over 100 and injured over 400, making them the deadliest terrorist attacks in Turkish history. In his comments on the bombing, the respected security and terrorism expert Ihsan Bal suggested that the attack conformed to a pattern of violence reminiscent of the clashes in the late 1970s between leftists and right-wing nationalists that left over 4,000 dead. Bal, who serves as vice president of Turkey’s esteemed International Strategic Research Organization think tank, specifically points to Turkey’s May Day massacre of 1977, in which 34 to 42 were killed and 126 to 220 injured. Assailants with automatic weapons opened fire on a crowd of 500,000 in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, who were there to participate in labor demonstrations organized by Turkey’s Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (or DISK, its Turkish acronym). DISK was also one of the principal organizers of the rally in Ankara attacked by ISIS.
In his analysis, Bal raises the specter of the “Grey Wolves,” the name for the far right nationalist youth movement that engaged in paramilitary violence against the Turkish left during the 1970s. In doing so, he provides a warning about a volatile new mix of movements in Turkey, including the radical elements from the Grey Wolves, from ISIS, from the AKP’s youth movement, and from the Kurdish youth militias. Although the Grey Wolves, officially known as the “Idealist Hearths,” have been reformed under the leadership of MHP head Devlet Bahceli, the movement retains its vehement opposition to Kurdish nationalism. As the AKP seeks to siphon votes from the MHP’s Turkish nationalist base, its own group, the “Ottoman Hearths,” has directly competed with the Idealist Hearths for adherents.
The competition between the two movements spurred on a spate of urban street violence that followed the PKK’s September 7 attack on the Turkish military. Outraged by the devastating PKK attack, which killed 17 soldiers, mobs allegedly mobilized by the two organizations via social media launched over 100 attacks on HDP branch offices as well as tens of assaults on individual Kurds. In addition, there were two separate incidents of mob violence against the offices of Turkey’s leading liberal newspaper as well as an assault on one of the newspaper’s most prominent columnists.
In the event that Kurdish urban youth militias directly confront ISIS militants or right-wing youth activists in Turkey’s major urban centers, Turkey will find itself in the midst of a conflagration more complicated and harder to resolve than even that of the late 1970s. Turkey’s middle class, broadened by the country’s prior economic boom and connected to the global economy, is looking for a government that will change the current course. Their best hope may be a coalition of national unity between the AKP-CHP, despite Turkey’s problematic past experience with coalition governments, if it facilitates the resumption of a constructive approach to the Kurdish issue. After the election, a return to peace negotiations with the PKK would allow Turkey’s security sector to focus on the threat posed by ISIS and would encourage Turkey’s Kurds to refocus their energies again on parliamentary politics. For Turkey, that would be a much-needed opportunity to restore stability and, eventually, economic growth.
In all likelihood, though, no matter the outcome of the November vote, Turkey will be in for a rough ride.