Turks turn against Erdogan in the wake of Ankara bombings

    In the aftermath of the Ankara bombings, civil society, students, unions and activists across Turkey came together and stood united to mourn the dead.

    The “Labor, Peace and Democracy” rally organized in Turkey’s capital Ankara on October 10 was calling to end the violent conflict between Turkish security forces and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK.

    People came from all over Turkey to simply march for peace, to call for democracy and stability in a country that once stood united. Among the protesters were university students, families, friends, representatives of various unions and nongovernmental organizations. Turks of all ages gathered in Ankara’s most popular square where political rallies are often held. Footage, which circulated on the news from just minutes before the two deadly blasts, showed people performing traditional dances, holding flags and ready to start the march that was scheduled to take place at 10 a.m.

    But at 10:04 life stopped at Sihhiye Square. The first explosion happened, and then seconds later another one. Body parts scattered across the square, pools of blood, people screaming and running around. As one of the local reporters recalled the scene later, it was hard not to step on human body parts as people crossed the square shocked from the explosion.

    On October 10, Turkey saw its deadliest terrorist attack. Some people described the explosion, as Turkey’s own 9/11. According to the Turkish Medical Association, they have been able to identify 105 people killed so far. Thirty remain in critical condition of the 440 people rushed to the hospitals the day of the explosion.

    This was the third explosion this year. The first explosion took the lives of four at a support rally for the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, a largely Kurdish bloc, in the city of Diyarbakir in the run up to June 7 parliamentary elections. The second bomb went off in July in the majority Kurdish town of Suruc, killing 33. And now, the Ankara bombing has taken the lives of many more.

    Blaming the government

    As thousands of people attended funerals across Turkey in the aftermath of the bombings, many mourners vented their anger at the government.

    “The ministry of interior should have assessed that the risks were greater than those associated with a normal political rally,” İhsan Bal, a renowned terrorism expert and the vice president of the International Strategic Research Organization, said in an interview with the Journal of Turkish Weekly. “Their security assessment was faulty.”

    Eyewitnesses from the square reported that there were no security checks and only three police cars were parked at the roundabout across from the city’s main train station, where people were gathering before the march.

    Similarly, Lutfu Turkkan, a right-wing lawmaker in Turkish parliament, tweeted that the Ankara attack “was either a failure by the intelligence service, or it was done by the intelligence service.”

    The Minister of Interior Selami Altinok thought otherwise. In a press conference hours after the attack, he said, “all security measures were taken” and that he had no intentions of resigning. Sitting next to Altinok, the minister of justice smiled when a journalist asked whether any of the ministers were intending to resign over this tragedy.

    This only created more anger. A journalist who went to a rally organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, at the same location just two weeks ago said that there were at least 15 security checks.

    Civil society takes action

    The media blackout only added to the general frustration. Hours after the attack, Turkish authorities issued an order telling news outlets to remove images showing the moment of the blasts and gruesome pictures from the scene. The news organizations were warned of a total media blackout if they did not comply.

    Users of online platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, reported difficulty accessing these networks and Turks were yet again forced to turn to virtual private networks. And while there was no official announcement by the state that it was responsible for blocking social media, previous experience suggested this was indeed part of a government media blackout.

    In the meantime, civil society organizations and thousands of activists across Turkey came together and stood united to mourn the dead. #Yastayiz (we are mourning), #HayatiDurduruyoz (We are stopping life), #Boykottayiz (We are boycotting) were popular hashtags calling for unity. While the state declared three days of national mourning, thousands gathered in main squares in towns across Turkey calling on the government to find the perpetrators immediately and end the divide within Turkish society. In some rallies, people were reportedly chanting “Murderer Erdogan.” Many Turkish citizens fear the attack was aimed at sowing seeds of fear before the upcoming elections.

    Students at many of Turkey’s main universities and schools went on strike and held commemoration ceremonies on their campuses. Trade unions, which were key organizers of the Ankara peace march — such as the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions, Confederation of Public Employees, Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects and the Turkish Medical Association — announced strikes for October 12 and 13 and organized marches across the country. Similarly, Turkey’s Bar Association went on strike and all hearings were postponed.

    The government response

    Turkish citizens were not the only ones pointing fingers. Shortly after the explosion the ruling party and the HDP traded barbs. The co-leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, accused the government of being directly responsible in the explosion. “We have lost almost 150 of our people before and after the elections [referring to previous explosions in Suruc and Diyarbakir],” he said. “There was no effective investigation into previous explosions. There will be none regarding today’s attack either. This is not an attack against the unity of our state and nation. This is an attack by our state against our people.”

    Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu fired back, saying Demirtas had no right to accuse the state and the ruling party. The prime minister went as far as to question the involvement of Demirtas and the HDP in the bombing and also accuse the party of using the attacks to gain votes in the upcoming elections.

    Such open accusations against the Kurdish party became common after June’s elections, which the AKP lost because the HDP managed to win 13 percent — passing the 10 percent threshold and gaining seats in Turkish parliament for the first time in Turkey’s history.

    “Yes, elections are over, the people have decided. They chose chaos,” Burhan Kuzu, a professor known for aligning with the AKP, said the day after the elections. “To leave this country to the opposition means only taking the country to the abyss.”

    A month later Ankara dismantled the brief two-year ceasefire with the PKK fighters by launching air strikes against their bases in retaliation for the explosions in Suruc and Diyarbakir.

    This made it clear to many that Erdogan was not capable of resolving the country’s tensions — between the secular and religious, rich and poor, Kurds and Turks.

    Ahmet Hakan, the prominent Turkish journalist who was recently beaten in front of his house by men later identified as AKP members, wrote that the government turned the country into a place where people hate each other.

    A brief history of the conflict

    The PKK fought for a separate state — called Kurdistan — in Turkey for years, starting in the 1980s. Ankara suppressed hopes for any such state and went to war with the PKK, which had led to the loss of some 40,000 lives. In the 1990s, the PKK softened its rhetoric, calling for autonomy rather than an independent state and the recognition of the cultural rights of Turkey’s estimated 1.5 million Kurds. For Turkey, the PKK was a terrorist organization and the party’s political branch was labeled as part of the terrorist network as well. Turkey only had good relations with Iraqi Kurds and with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey pumps 120,000 barrels of oil a day from Kirkuk to its port in Ceyhan.

    The arrest and jailing of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, in 1999 killed any hopes for further normalization. It was only Ocalan’s call for a ceasefire in 2013 that brought Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the negotiation table.

    But the brief truce ended abruptly when Ankara launched airstrikes against the PKK camps in northern Iraq in July 2015. In response, the PKK declared that these attacks against Islamic State positions in Syria and Kurds in Iraq spelled the end of peace process.

    What is next for Turkey?

    With elections looming in just a little over three weeks, Ankara is facing a lot of criticism from the public and opposition parties. People’s trust in the government is severely undermined and Erdogan has done very little to create unity among Turks.

    The dismantling of the peace process with the Kurds — and the loss of more than 200 lives over the past three months — only adds to Erdogan’s declining popularity at home.

    Most importantly, secular Turks see the restarting of conflict with the PKK as an attempt by Erdogan to gain votes, and the war with the Islamic State as a show of strength. People realize they are being played and that the average citizen is losing in this struggle over political power in Turkey.

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