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15 October 2015

Fears of instability after the Ankara attack

On the streets of Ankara, residents wear black cards pinned to their chests bearing the words “We won’t forget”.

By Alev Scott

Outside a hospital in Ankara, after the bomb attacks of 10 October, a worried crowd waited for news of missing family members and friends. No one was allowed inside. The crowd huddled in the rain by A&E, commiserating with strangers. It was a scene in sharp contrast to the rancour and backbiting of politicians in the Turkish media, quick to speculate who the culprits were and where to lay the blame.

The breach between ordinary Turks and their government has widened in the lead-up to snap elections on 1 November. Whatever the allegiances of the two suicide bombers, many Turks place responsibility for the attack – which official figures claim killed at least 97 and critically injured many more – at the feet of an interim government dominated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), along with its former leader President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On the streets of Ankara, residents wear black cards pinned to their chests bearing the words “We won’t forget”, an expression of mourning that carries a political message. Soon the country will vote for the second time in five months, after general elections earlier this year produced a hung parliament. On 7 June, for the first time in 13 years, the AKP lost its majority following a strong performance by the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won 80 seats in the national assembly. The HDP was buoyed by its popularity among Turkey’s minorities, including the estimated 14 to 20 million Kurds. The recent attack in Ankara targeted trade unions and left-aligned groups, including a large contingent of HDP supporters. With elections looming and no drop in the party’s popularity, many believe the bombing was no freak occurrence.

Supporters of the victims believe the attack was an attempt by the interim AKP government to sow panic before 1 November, a belief given some credence by the co-chair of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, who described the government as “a mafia state with blood on its hands.” Others, less cynically, believe that the intelligence services wilfully failed to ensure basic security measures were in place before the rally. Ahmet Davutoglu, the caretaker prime minister, singled out Isis as the prime suspect shortly after the bombing and blamed the “rule of law” for preventing the security services from acting on intelligence: “We have a list of suicide bombers. But we can’t arrest them until they act.”

The statement drew immediate ridicule in a country where journalists are frequently arrested on suspicion of “spreading terrorist propaganda” and where members of the public are arrested for insulting the president. “When you see a suicide bomber, accuse him/her of insulting the president, then the cops will detain them,” was the response of one Turkish tweeter.

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In a sense, it is irrelevant whether the culprits are found. Even if the bombers are identified as members of Isis many will believe that they were puppets, as was the case with the bombing in Suruç, near the Syrian border, which killed more than 30 Turkish activists delivering aid to Kobane on 20 July.

There are those who believe that the AKP makes it possible for Isis to operate with ease here. At the funeral of a lawyer killed in the Ankara attack, the chairman of the Turkish Bar Association, Metin Feyzioglu, said: “The government is in the end responsible for not taking enough precautions, for polarising society, for being so tolerant towards Isis and for interfering in Syria’s internal affairs.”

Yet there are many loyal AKP supporters who will accept the government line and vote for the party. Nationalists will also vote AKP because they want a single-party government that can steer the country through troubled times. The national mood is one of fear: of new attacks, of civil war, of political and economic instability.

In the event that the AKP does not regain the majority it lost in June, the opposition parties – including the HDP – will be forced to renew the coalition talks that failed over the summer. If a government is formed this time, it may have to include the AKP as the party with the largest vote share.

Turks face either a single-handed AKP government, with Erdogan’s Putin-style presidency back on the cards, or a union of parties that often accuse each other of theft, terrorism and murder.

It is tough to be optimistic in this situation. Yet there is hope among survivors of the 10 October march, who were still shouting their slogans for peace as they buried the dead. Despite everything, there are still some pacifists in Turkey.

This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy