Turkey is looking more and more like its troubled neighbors

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2015 6:10 AM

By Samia Nakhoul

(Reuters) - It should have been a moment of unity against a backdrop of horror.

At a qualifying match this month for next year’s Euro 2016 soccer championship in the central Anatolian city of Konya, the teams of Turkey and Iceland stood, heads bowed, for a minute of silence commemorating the 102 victims of suicide bombings in Ankara three days earlier.

But sectors of the crowd erupted in jeers and booing, shouting right-wing slogans and Allahu Akbar (God is Great). Instead of a closing of national ranks, the moment spotlighted Turkey's raw divisions.

The bombings, carried out by Islamic State followers from inside Turkey, targeted the pro-Kurdish coalition the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), left-wing activists and trade unionists as they gathered for a rally against fighting in southeast Turkey between security forces and insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

It was the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history but, far from uniting the country, it increased the polarization. Turkey’s qualifying victory over Iceland was eclipsed by the rancor on show in Konya’s stadium.

“Don’t we have a heart that beats for them (the Ankara victims) and the lips to hush? What does it take to respect a person who passed away? Are we so unfamiliar with these feelings?” wrote former national team manager Mustafa Denizli in Hurriyet newspaper.

Turkey, a NATO ally and candidate for EU membership, risks sliding into the sort of ethnic and sectarian strife that has torn Iraq and Syria to its south. In the view of some alarmed analysts, Turkey is starting to resemble its neighbors.

“We are becoming more and more Syrianised and we are turning into more of a Middle Eastern country than a European country,” said veteran analyst Cengiz Candar.

SPLITS EMERGE

Turkish officials dismiss such parallels. Turkey is a stable democracy, they say, and is not alone in feeling the flames of Syria's war - the European Union too is suffering.

Until 2013, Turkey was seen as a pillar of stability. A decade of moderate Islamist government had cemented strong links with the West and influence in the Middle East.

But all that started to change in June 2013 when the secular cities of west and coastal Turkey erupted in protest at what they perceived to be a growing authoritarianism in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's rule.

Erdogan put down the protests and clamped down on the media.

He began seizing judicial and security powers after prosecutors opened investigations into alleged corruption among his ministers and family. Erdogan denounced a foreign-directed plot to topple him.

Elected president in 2014, Erdogan overstepped the powers of a constitutionally non-partisan office by campaigning to get the Islamist party he founded, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a sufficient parliamentary majority to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

Turkish voters rejected the prospect of one-man rule, and at a general election in June this year the AKP lost its majority for the first time since 2002.

After perfunctory coalition talks, Erdogan called a new election, for November 1.

Turkey’s always polarized politics have since turned toxic.

UNREST ERUPTS

Even before the June election, there had been dozens of attacks on offices and campaign rallies of the HDP party that had successfully united Turkey’s Kurdish minority and won support among secular, liberal and leftist Turks.

The HDP comfortably vaulted the 10 per cent threshold for entry into parliament. Its 80 seats, from an area that had previously leaned toward the AKP, left the ruling party with 258 MPs, 18 short of even a simple majority in the 550-member national assembly. Erdogan was further than ever from achieving an executive presidency.

The situation deteriorated sharply in July when an IS suicide bombing killed 34 Kurdish and socialist activists at Suruc, just over the border from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. The attack inflamed southeast Turkey and imperiled a two-year ceasefire with the PKK.

Not just Kurdish insurgents but Kurds in general and many Turkish opponents of Erdogan accused the government of complicity - a charge the government denied.

When the PKK responded by killing two policemen, Ankara launched an air campaign across its southern borders, targeting the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

There is widespread suspicion, within Turkey and among its Western allies, that by resuming the war against the PKK, Erdogan is looking to poach Turkish nationalist votes and push the HDP back below the 10 percent barrier. A big AKP majority would enable Erdogan to proceed with his plans for a French-style executive presidency, with minimal checks and balances.

Erdogan has rejected opposition claims that he is deliberately stoking unrest. The government says it launched air strikes against the PKK in July in response to rising attacks on the security forces.

CONSEQUENCE

Some analysts say the Suruc bombing was an inevitable consequence of the government’s Syria policy. The practice of allowing jihadi volunteers to cross the border to fight in Syria has seeded Turkey with IS sympathizers.

Yet even when Turkish press reports identified cells in towns such as Adiyaman, little action was taken. The Turkish government denies it supports Islamic State sympathizers, tacitly or otherwise, or that attacks were not properly investigated.

“Too many of the attacks against the HDP are not investigated,” said Hakan Altinay, from Washington’s Brookings Institute. "The social contract has been broken..(And this is) key to (the Kurdish) sense of alienation. If you carry on that way the social fabric unravels."

Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat who heads the liberal EDAM think-tank in Istanbul and is a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Foundation in Brussels, said the government's response to the bombings has been inadequate.

“The government so far has been unable to come up with any convincing explanation why they failed to investigate correctly and accept responsibility for our freedom and security.”

“Turkey is in turmoil (and) the flames are engulfing everyone,” said Ulgen, referring to the fallout from Syria.

Altinay said Turkey was beginning to resemble its neighbors, adding: "Once you let that genie out of the bottle it’s difficult to get it back in.”

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall and the Turkey team; editing by Janet McBride)