Monday, 26 April 2010

Violence Against Politicians in Turkey Raises the Spectre of Destabilization

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 8 of the Turkey Analyst)

The recent physical attacks on politicians in Turkey raise the specter of destabilization. The Turkish government speculates that the attacks are coordinated by forces within the state security establishment. The incidents obviously occur within a wider context of ideological manipulation. Turkish ultra-nationalism has developed and spread during the last decade. It seems that the punch, rather than the outstretched hand, and irrationality are set to define the future of Turkish-Kurdish relations.

BACKGROUND: On April, 12, Ahmet Türk, the former leader of the Democratic society party (DTP), closed down by the  Constitutional Court last December, was attacked when leaving a court in the city of Samsun and punched in the face. Türk, who is widely recognized as one of the most reasonable and moderate representatives of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, had his nose broken in the attack. A week later, Taner Yıldız, the minister of Energy, was similarly attacked and punched on the nose in the city of Kayseri when attending the funeral of a soldier killed in an encounter with the outlawed Kurdistan workers party (PKK).

While it is obvious why Ahmet Türk was chosen as a target, the choice of Taner Yıldız, who has not been politically involved in the Kurdish issue, seemed odd. Yet the attack on the Energy minister was explicitly linked to the Kurdish issue; the assailant stated that “the martyrs will not die, the fatherland will not be partitioned”. The attack was obviously intended as a warning to the government of the Justice and development party (AKP) that its “opening” to the Kurdish minority will not go unpunished.

Of course, the fact that the two attacks took place within a week and shared the same modus operandi could be a mere coincidence. However, even assuming that the attacks were “spontaneous” acts, unrelated in an organizational sense, and presuming that the assailants acted on the impulse of the moment, unable to contain their nationalist rage, the incidents nevertheless occur within a wider context of ideological manipulation. Turkish ultra-nationalism has been ideologically cultivated during the last decade; a torrent of bestselling books and widely popular television series have tended to a xenophobic world view and to a fanatic nationalism of Çılgın Türkler – “crazy Turks”. This term is not used pejoratively; it denotes patriots who defy the presumed internal and external foes of the nation – not least Americans. 

Meanwhile, the AKP government has made a point of celebrating cultural and ethnic diversity and embarked on initially promising but since stalled “openings” to some of those very internal and external foes of Turkish nationalism – Kurds and Armenians.  Those initiatives were more or less shelved precisely because of the stiff nationalist resistance with which they were met. And the AKP government evidently suspects that its opponents within the state establishment are fomenting nationalism in order to destabilize its hold on power.

The recent attacks on politicians, as well as the murders of two police officers in Samsun following the assault on Ahmet Türk – are seen as forming a sinister pattern. “There is something dirty here; there are certain forces behind these”, declared Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Interior ministry has instructed the local police administrations not to dismiss the punching incidents as spontaneous acts and ordered them to unravel their deeper connections: “It has been observed that certain elements connected to dark forces are organizing acts with the purpose of creating chaos in order to sabotage the democratic measures taken by the government.” The democratic measures to which the Interior ministry refers is apparently the constitutional amendments that are presently being processed in the parliament. Several commentators in Turkey are predicting that further incidents could be expected in the very near future, and suggest that the security forces are not entirely reliable.

The assault on Ahmet Türk did indeed occur in spite of the fact that he was surrounded by a horde of police officers; afterwards Türk pointed out that the police had remained passive and that their attitude in general towards him and his collaborators was hostile. The interior ministry instructs local police to “take into account the probability that certain officials may be involved with the civilian assailants” and urges them to “deepen the investigations in this direction”.

IMPLICATIONS:  The AKP government is not only experiencing increasing troubles in keeping renegade elements of the state security establishment in check. In a more general sense, the AKP has lost control of the political narrative. Indeed, since the “opening” to the Kurds was launched last summer, the government has proven inept at formulating a narrative at all, and has ended up alienating the Turks as well as the Kurds. Among the former, the counter-narrative of the nationalist opposition – that the opening was a menace to the integrity of Turkey – quickly found widespread reception. The Kurds on the other hand have by now concluded that the opening was a sham. The leader of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP) – the successor to the closed DTP – Selahattin Demirtaş observes that the government has managed to scare the Turks and deceive the Kurds. The result is a swelling of anger on both sides that by all accounts poses a serious threat and undercuts any effort to seek a peaceful way out of the existential impasse of Turkey. Indeed, given the fact that Turkish nationalism reigns supreme among the public, there is presently little if any incentive for such a political quest.

That grim reality was underlined by BDP leader Demirtaş, who stated to the Turkey Analyst that “The party that solves the Kurdish problem will not increase its votes”. “The AKP must be prepared to pay a price”, he went on. Yet the AKP has evidently already made up its mind that it is not going to risk its hold on power by any further ventures. Prime Minister Erdoğan will seek to avoid falling victim to the Gorbachev syndrome; of being a reformer who is rewarded by being deprived of his power. Thus, Turkey’s most fateful matter has been left unaddressed in the constitutional reform package.

Instead, the AKP is at pains trying to bolster its credentials as the party that upholds the state and the Turkish nation. In a particularly heated moment in parliament last week during the debate on the constitutional amendments, the speaker of the parliament, who is an AKP deputy, angrily denounced a statement of one Kurdish BDP deputy asserting that a war is raging in Turkey. Mehmet Ali Şahin, the speaker, called the deputy to order, instructing her not to refer to the fight against “terrorism” as “war”. He solemnly declared that the speaker’s non-partisanship does not apply in the matters of the state, stating “I am a partisan of the Turkish state”.

The nationalist opposition Republican people’s party (CHP) sees fit to depict the AKP as precisely the opposite, as a party that is bent on partitioning the state. Yılmaz Ateş, a deputy chairman of the CHP, explained this to the Turkey Analyst: Asked why he thinks that the AKP launched the opening to the Kurds, Ateş answered “because the United States wants it”. “The U.S. wants to save the PKK guerilla as it seeks to secure a new foothold in the Middle East in the form of a Kurdish state”. Asked why he thinks that the AKP has given in to such – presumed – American wishes, the deputy chairman of the CHP speculated that the “AKP obeys the U.S. in order to ensure American support for its objective of creating a religious state.”

CONCLUSIONS: The presumption of the nationalist opposition that the AKP has set out to willfully partition Turkey highlights the irrational state of mind that prevails among large sections of Turkish society. The CHP clearly counts on winning by catering to that state of mind. The CHP’s Ateş confidently predicted that the AKP is on its way out. “I will not be surprised if they fall below 20 percent”, he says. Fikret Bila, a prominent journalist, similarly forecasts that the Kurdish opening – and more precisely the perception that it led to PKK guerillas receiving a hero’s welcome upon entering Turkey last autumn – will be the CHP’s best asset in the upcoming elections, alongside the incarceration of top-ranking military personnel that has rankled Turkish nationalists.

Turkish nationalism may very well serve to undermine the AKP. Yet it will hardly help Turkey out of its impasse, a fact that Turkish nationalists seem strikingly unable to recognize. The deputy chairman of the CHP believes that his party would have received 60 percent of the votes in the Kurdish Southeast if it hadn’t been for the PKK that “threatens people not to vote for us”. The Turkish nationalist’s detachment from reality has its counterpart on the Kurdish nationalist side: The representatives of the BDP continue to hold the view that the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, in some way or another must be included in the search for a solution, a suggestion that is certain to remain preposterous to Turks now and in the future.

It seems that the punch, rather than the outstretched hand, and irrationality are set to define the future of Turkish-Kurdish relations.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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