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Turkey's Political Paralysis

Aaron Stein
Commentary, 15 October 2015
Turkey, International Security Studies, Counterinsurgency, Terrorism, Global Security Issues, Terrorism, Europe
The recent suicide bombings in Ankara have exacerbated the simmering tensions in Turkey’s political system.

On Saturday 10 October 2015, two suicide bombers, Yunus Emre Alagoz and Omer Deniz Dundar, detonated two suicide vests at a large ‘peace rally’ outside the main train station in Ankara. The twin bombings killed ninety-seven people and are the worst terrorist attack in Turkey’s history.

The two bombers are linked to a suspected Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) cell based in Adiyaman, in southeast Turkey. Yunus Emre’s younger brother, Seyh Abdurrahman, was suspected of bombing a leftist gathering in the town of Suruc on the Syrian-Turkish border, and a third alleged accomplice, Orhan Gonder, is accused of planting explosives at a campaign rally for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The Adiyaman cell remains active, with at least one reported member, listed only as ‘Y S’ in the Turkish press, still at large.

Much of the information surrounding the events remains speculative and the Turkish government has yet to even formally identify the two suspected assailants. Turkish security sources have consistently pointed to a link with the Adiyaman group, but Turkey’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has refused to rule out the possibility that Daesh and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are working together to foment political chaos in Turkey before the election on 1 November.

The bombings in Ankara come some three weeks before Turkish citizens are scheduled to head to the polls to vote in an early election. This latest election comes after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to win enough parliamentary seats to form a government following the election in June. The AKP’s political failure is linked to the performance of the Kurdish-dominated HDP.

Taking advantage of the situation in Syria, the HDP was able to secure 13 per cent of the vote, doubling its traditional constituency, largely by attracting former Kurdish supporters of the AKP. The HDP’s success is also connected to the personal charisma of its co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas, who has been able to tap into the region’s feelings of Kurdish nationalism to bolster his popular appeal.

This renewed sense of pan-Kurdish solidarity stems from the Kurdish war against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. For many Kurds in Turkey, the Daesh siege of Sinjar, and then Kobane, galvanised support for the group most heavily involved in the fighting during both events: the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The PYD is closely linked with the PKK – a designated terror group in the US, EU and Turkey that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state for greater political autonomy since 1984. During the Daesh siege of Kobane, the Turkish government refused to directly intervene, which deepened Kurdish anger inside Turkey against the AKP. This anger comes from the deeply held belief amongst Turkish Kurds that the AKP has given direct support to Daesh and other radical Syrian rebel groups to check PYD gains in Syria.

Demirtas has echoed this sentiment. Following the Suruc and Ankara bombings, he accused the AKP of being complicit in the attacks. The AKP has rejected the claims and has responded by accusing Demirtas of purposefully deepening political tensions. However, the attempts to portray the PKK as being part of the attack appear to be linked with the AKP’s electoral strategy vis-à-vis the HDP. Both before the June election, and now during the run-up to the November poll, the AKP has focused on tying Demirtas directly to the PKK – and therefore portraying him as a terrorist.

The HDP certainly has links to the PKK and Demirtas’s brother is reportedly a member. Moreover, the party as a whole benefits from the numerous PKK-linked organisations active in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority cities in the southeast to ‘get out the vote’. However, the HDP has sought to carve out some autonomy from the group and Demirtas has taken political positions at odds with the PKK’s current leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan. The AKP has refused to recognise this nuance and instead has sought to use the party’s links to the PKK for its political advantage.

These attacks have sharpened in recent months, particularly after a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down in mid-July. Since then, the PKK has killed 146 Turkish security personnel and the Turkish air force has conducted hundreds of air strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan and southeast Turkey.

In the aftermath of the Ankara bombing, the framing of the event has quickly become politicised. This has deepened societal tensions and increased polarisation. Every Turkish opinion poll shows that the electorate’s political preferences have remained unchanged since the June election. This suggests that there are no remaining swing voters.

Thus, while the AKP is certain to still win the most seats in parliament, it will not be able to form a government by itself. The party will therefore have to enter into another round of negotiations to form a coalition government.

The bombings simply make this process harder. The HDP and the AKP remain completely at odds with one another and both have sought to use the events to their political advantage. The main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, has called for a parliamentary commission to investigate the attack, but the AKP may resist this, owing to concerns that the party’s popularity could suffer if major security lapses are revealed. Indeed, at least two of the suspected bombers (Orhan Gonder and Omer Deniz Dundar) had previously been questioned by authorities, but let go without facing arrest.

Against this already-complicated backdrop, the PKK has continued to carry out attacks against the Turkish state. These dynamics point to a further increase in the levels of political polarisation that have paralysed the Turkish government in recent months and could forestall efforts to address the security lapses that contributed to the recent Ankara bombing.

Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at RUSI. He is also a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a doctoral fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

*Header image: Ankara University students at a sit-in protest on 13 October 2015 hold placards with victims' names from the 10 October bombings in the Turkish capital. Image courtesy of Emrah Gurel/AP/Press Association


Aaron Stein
Associate Fellow

Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at RUSI. He is also the nonproliferation program manager at the Center for Economics and Foreign... read more

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