Friday, 18 September 2015

Taking it to the streets: Turkey's rising social tensions

Published in Articles

By Gareth H. Jenkins 

September 18th, 2015, The Turkey Analyst

The recent spate of violent protests by Turkish ultranationalists – including attempted lynchings of ethnic Kurds -- and the attacks by government supporters on the Hürriyet newspaper have reinforced already serious concerns about both the deepening fissures in Turkish society and the continuing weakening of the rule of law in the country.


BACKGROUND: Ever since Turkey was swept by the Gezi Park Protests in summer 2013, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – first as prime minister and, since August 2014, as president – has sought to maintain his grip on power by deepening, rather than broadening, his popular support base through the inculcation of conspiracy theories that have pitted different sections of Turkish society against each other. The result has been the creation of a siege mentality amongst both his supporters and his opponents in the face of a palpable deterioration across a broad range of issues where -- up until a few years ago – Turkey had appeared to have made considerable progress, such as the economy, domestic security and the country’s prestige and influence in the world.

For Erdoğan’s supporters, the apparent turnaround in Turkey’s fortunes nearly thirteen years after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first took office in November 2002 is the result of a combination of a failure to concentrate ever more political power in Erdoğan’s hands and the machinations of an alleged conspiracy by an improbably vast coalition of foreign and domestic actors scheming to prevent the country’s otherwise inevitable rise to greatness under his leadership. For Erdoğan’s opponents, he is the problem rather than the solution – and his increasingly autocratic authoritarianism is propelling Turkey not to greatness but into a spiraling political, economic and social collapse.

Although Erdoğan undoubtedly bears most of the responsibility for the rise in social tensions, Turkey’s inept and uninspiring mainstream opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), have also played their part, particularly through their failure to mount a credible challenge to his continued domination of political decision-making – even after the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in the June 7, 2015 general election.

The unprecedented success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the general election – in which it won 13.0 per cent of the popular vote and took 80 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament – appears to have heightened rather than reduced tensions. Under the Turkish electoral system, it was the HDP crossing the 10 per cent threshold for entry into parliament – which meant that the seats were shared between four rather than three parties – that stripped the AKP of its majority, rather than the decline in the AKP vote to 40.7 per cent compared with 49.8 per cent at the previous election in 2011.

Even though HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş has done more to distance himself from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) than any other leader of a pro-Kurdish party – and has incurred the wrath of the PKK leadership in northern Iraq as a result – from the Turkish ultranationalist perspective, the HDP is indistinguishable from the PKK. Disquiet – even panic – at its success in the general election has been exacerbated by the recent upsurge in PKK violence. 

From the perspective of many Erdoğan loyalists, the HDP’s success and the AKP’s loss of its parliamentary majority are not only proof of a vast domestic and international conspiracy to undermine Erdoğan but also a sign that the conspiracy is succeeding. In this context, the vitriolic rhetoric that the pro-AKP media now routinely direct at Erdoğan’s perceived enemies and critics and the measures taken against them – including efforts to suppress and prosecute any criticism of Erdoğan – by AKP loyalists in the police and judiciary are indications not of confidence and strength but of fear and desperation.

The situation has been further exacerbated by the tactics adopted by the PKK since it returned to violence on July 22, 2015 in frustration at the AKP’s failure to launch comprehensive peace negotiations and in retaliation for what it believed was the complicity of the Turkish government in the suicide bombing in Suruç on July 20, 2015 that killed 32 young leftist activists.

A large proportion of the PKK’s military resources are committed to the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In order to minimize losses amongst the limited number of personnel it is able to deploy in Turkey, during its current campaign of violence the PKK has relied heavily on roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the extensive use of vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) – including suicide car bombings – for the first time. Of the 118 members of the security forces killed by the PKK in the period from July 22 to September 15, 2015, a total of 67 are believed to have died as the result of IEDs or VBIEDS, while another 21 have been killed in execution-style assassinations. Perhaps because of what is widely perceived as their “underhand” or “cowardly” nature, deaths as a result of IEDs or assassinations tend to have a greater impact on the public psyche than, for example, casualties in firefights.

In addition, the PKK high command has repeatedly called for young Kurdish nationalists in towns and cities in southeastern Turkey to stage uprisings and establish de facto autonomy through the creation of no-go areas from which the Turkish security forces are excluded. When combined with the security forces’ lack of training in urban guerilla warfare and apparent official indifference to the risk of collateral damage, the result has been – as the PKK will have been aware when it issued the call – widespread civilian casualties. For example, in the southeast town of Cizre, around twenty civilians – including children, women and the elderly – were killed in the period September 4-11, 2015, alone. Although such high levels of civilian casualties have so far been confined to the southeast, the subsequent media coverage has ensured that their traumatizing impact has spread through the country as a whole.

IMPLICATIONS: In addition to the PKK taking its campaign of violence – and the attendant casualties – into the heart of Kurdish communities in southeast Turkey, since the beginning of September 2015 there has also been a sharp rise in street violence in the rest of the country.

On the afternoon of September 6 a total of 16 soldiers were killed in a PKK IED attack on a military convoy in Dağlıca in the southeastern province of Hakkari. On September 8 another PKK IED killed 14 policemen as they were being transported by bus to work in the northeastern province of Iğdır.

Starting on the evening of September 6 Turkish nationalist demonstrators took to the streets at the beginning of over a week of often violent protests. In the past, such demonstrations had been dominated by MHP sympathizers. However, this time AKP supporters appeared to be in the majority and religious chants, such as “Allahu Ekber”, or “God is great”, were mixed with anti-PKK and anti-Kurdish slogans. Many of the protests seemed to have been organized by the Osmanlı Ocakları, or “Ottoman Hearths”, which were founded by AKP supporters in 2009 as a counterweight to the MHP’s Ülkü Ocakları or “Idealist Hearths”. As the name suggests, the Osmanlı Ocakları combine elements of Ottoman nostalgia, Turkish supremacism and a strong sense of Sunni Muslim identity. One of the organization’s mottoes is “Erdoğan is our honor”.

Many of the protests targeted HDP offices, including the firebombing of the party’s headquarters in Ankara. Disturbingly, CCTV footage later made public by the HDP showed the police who had ostensibly been deployed to protect the building making little effort to intervene. There were also numerous reports of protestors attacking and attempting to lynch ethnic Kurds, including one confirmed fatality.

On the evening of September 6 a mob of several hundred AKP supporters stormed the head office of the Hürriyet daily newspaper in Istanbul, trashing offices on the ground floor, after it quoted Erdoğan as saying that the attack in Dağlıca would not have happened if he had been granted more political power. (Erdoğan actually attributed the overall escalation in PKK violence, rather than the Dağlıca attack, to him not being able to exercise more power.) Prominent among the attackers was 28 year-old Abdurrahim Boynulkalın, an AKP MP and head of the party’s youth branch. Video footage from the incident showed Boynulkalın inciting the mob and vowing that Erdoğan would be granted complete political power regardless of the outcome of the forthcoming Turkish general election on November 1, 2015.

It was only on September 8, after Hürriyet had been stormed for a second time, that AKP officials publicly condemned the assault. Nevertheless, there have been no arrests of any those who participated in the attack. On September 12, Boynulkalın was effectively promoted by being elected to the AKP’s National Executive Board at the party congress in Ankara. On September 15 the public prosecutor in the Bakirköy district of Istanbul launched a criminal investigation into the Doğan Media Group, the owner of Hürriyet, on charges of supporting terrorism.

CONCLUSIONS: The AKP’s loss of its parliamentary majority in the June 7 general election was a severe setback to Erdoğan’s hopes of replacing Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one and formally concentrating all political power in his own hands. He now appears to be calculating that, if the AKP can win a majority in the election on November 1 he will be able to use his still considerable influence within the party to continue to rule the country through a de facto rather than a de jure presidential system.

However, ever since the Gezi Park Protests, Erdoğan has made his continued domination of Turkey dependent on sustained social tension and the inculcation amongst his supporters of a permanent siege mentality against alleged enemies inside and outside the country. This state of perpetual tension and paranoia is not only extremely wearing psychologically but is unsustainable in the longer term – not least because the resolution of the most urgent problems facing Turkey, such as the economic slowdown and the Kurdish issue, require calm and stability.

Similarly, the continuing suppression of freedom of expression and the increasingly flagrant abuse of the judicial system to persecute perceived political rivals and opponents can only be successful in the short-term. Over a longer period they produce not only a build-up of pressure in society but the decline of any residual trust in the judicial system and the rule of law. In a society long torn by unhealed social divisions and with a proclivity for violence, the consequences could be severe.

There currently appears little prospect of Turkey enjoying political and social stability while Erdoğan continues to dominate political decision-making in the country. Another hung parliament would almost certainly result in a coalition government and thus considerably reduce Erdoğan’s influence. However, this would not be sufficient in itself to resolve the tensions that have spilled over onto the streets in recent weeks – not least because Erdoğan himself would retain a highly committed, if probably numerically diminishing, personal support base. Although the prospects appear better than under the current system, resolving these tensions would still be a major challenge for any coalition government.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

Image attribution:, DHA photo, accessed on Sept 18th, 2015

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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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