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Can a Massacre Help win an Election?

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The night after the massacre of one hundred peace activists in Ankara on October 10, protestors crowded the streets leading to Taksim Square in Istanbul carrying signs reading, “We know the killers” (Katilleri tanıyoruz). Mourning and rage mingled in a beautifully concise statement that nonetheless leaves ample room for explanation of how it happened, with whose permission or collusion, and how likely it is to happen again.

Turkish society was not unanimous in grieving for the dead. At a football match held in Konya between the Turkish and Icelandic national teams, some fans responded to the request for a moment of silence by booing the victims and shouting “Allahü Ekber!” As if in response to such celebrations, a state television (TRT) anchor reminded his viewers that the victims may have included not only anti-government protestors but “some innocent people as well,” for instance “public janitors,” “policemen” and “people just walking to work.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced that, “after the terrorist attack in Ankara…our votes are trending upward.” Tragically, he was right. Three weeks after members of an Islamic State cell killed over a hundred people demonstrating against AKP policies, that party returned in force to the parliamentary majority it had lost on June 7, winning four and half million new votes and over 49% of the total.

Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s landslide victory reflects the migration into the Justice and Development Party (AKP) column of voters traditionally partial to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which dropped four percentage points in the polls since the June election. Setting aside its project of a negotiated settlement to the decades-long guerilla war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the AKP has consolidated a Turkish right wing now galvanized by the threat of a pro-Kurdish leftist party in parliament.

This picture, supposedly depicting a young Selahattin Demirtaş in PKK uniform, has scared a lot of Turks into opposing the HDP.
This picture, supposedly depicting a young Selahattin Demirtaş in PKK uniform, has scared a lot of Turks into opposing the HDP.

At the same time, a substantial number of ethnic Turks who voted for the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) on tactical grounds in June have moved back to their traditionally preferred Republican People’s Party (CHP). The key to understanding this phenomenon is the nationwide 10% barrier to parliamentary representation, which might have kept the regionally concentrated HDP out of parliament altogether, even with electoral pluralities in predominantly Kurdish districts. Some of these CHP voters wanted the Kurds to have a voice in parliament and withdrew their own support as soon as they thought this was assured, while others merely wanted to prevent seats from plurality-HDP districts from falling to the AKP.

That most of these voters moved back is clear from the results in the CHP stronghold of İzmir, one of the few cities where the “republicans” gained a significant vote increase this time, while the HDP tally slipped by about the same amount. Why, then, did the CHP do no better nationally than in the election four months ago? Rumors are abroad that some nationalist CHP voters switched to the AKP out HDP-phobia. For these voters, allegedly, the government’s discourse of order and “stability” was convincing. Overall the CHP maintained its position with a quarter of the vote, while the HDP and MHP both barely scraped across the barrier.

Unfortunately, the electoral fluctuations mask an underlying stability, in which hard-right parties win close to three fifths of the vote. The combined total of AKP and MHP votes did not change appreciably in this election. Only their distribution changed, as a result of the AKP’s success in mirroring the MHP’s nationalist discourse and actions.

If the AKP has made the passage from rhetoric to propaganda of the deed, than this too is a page from the ultra-nationalist playbook. This summer’s attacks on HDP sympathizers climaxing in the massacre of activists in Suruç recalled the violent atmosphere of the years leading up to the 1980 coup, in which young nationalists allegedly trained by the NATO stay-at-home army Counter-Guerilla played a leading role.

Nor did previous governments hesitate to rely on violent Islamic fundamentalists to fight left-wing Kurdish movements. Can Dündar, who assessed the Counter-Guerilla allegations in his 1997 book Ergenekon, also left little doubt that post-coup governments had used the Kurdish Hızbullah and its affiliated Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR) to keep the PKK and its supporters in check. Indeed İsmet Sezgin, Minister of the Interior under the center-right True Way Party (Doğru Yol Partisi / DYP) from 1991-94, has recently admitted that his cabinet “turned a blind eye” to Hızbullah violence against civilians as part of the struggle with the separatists: about as much of a confession of collaboration as one is likely to get.

Over the last year both manifestations of right-wing violence have made a return. While fundamentalists have carried the Islamic State (IS)’s war against the PYD onto Turkish territory by attacking HDP rallies and activists on their way to Kobanê, the AKP has formed its own militant wing reminiscent of the MHP’s Ülkü Ocakları, which, though still in existence, experienced its glory days in the era of Counter-Guerilla. The AKP’s Osmanlı Ocakları work to coopt the nationalists’ appeal to the extent of using nearly identical insignia. Reports of “Ottoman Hearth” youths receiving paramilitary training à la Counter-Guerilla have appeared in oppositional media. This summer, the chairmen of the Istanbul chapter’s youth wing tweeted his condolences to the Suruç suicide bomber’s relatives.

An 'Ottoman Hearths' gathering in Istanbul (Source: ımctv).
An ‘Ottoman Hearths’ gathering in
Istanbul (Source: ımctv).

Even with so much overlap between the ruling party and the fundamentalists, we should be cautious in our examination of who carried out the Ankara bombing, avoiding vague insinuations of “deep state” involvement that in some cases even benefit reactionaries. Omar Kassem’s article in Counterpunch blaming Fethullah Gülen is an especially egregious example of such a conspiracy theory, but the door is open to such claims as soon as one fingers “the state itself” as the culprit, as does Niall Finn in an otherwise insightful article in Jacobin the week after the attack. Blaming “the Turkish state” without further specification not only misses a full account of how the massacre took place; it will also not help us understand how the government has been able to turn the circumstances around the event to its own electoral advantage.

Scenes from an Investigation

President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu have repeatedly insisted on holding a panoply of different groups responsible for the Ankara bombing, thus defusing any ideologically or politically specific allegations which might lead to their own ranks. The cast of characters listed in Erdoğan’s speech to the AKP-loyal HAK-İş labor union on October 22 included not only the PKK and PYD (i.e. the Rojava government) but also the Assad regime’s secret service. IS also made the list, no doubt because leaving it out would stretch belief even among the party faithful. Yet if it can be made part of an amorphous list of evildoers then the government can more easily step in as saviors of national unity.

The evidence released so far by the prosecutors points unambiguously to a handful of Turkish citizens working under the banner of the Islamic State. As the investigation got started three weeks ago, the trail led quickly to Adıyaman and Gaziantep, two cities not far from the Syrian border where IS sympathizers are known to circulate. Forensic evidence identified one of the bombers as Yunus Emre Alagöz, whose brother Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz committed the Suruç attack.

Both brothers were well known to the Turkish police before either bombing occurred. CHP Istanbul Parliamentarians Ali Şeker and Eren Erdem found documents stating that in 2013 a number of families had appealed both to the President’s and Prime Minister’s Offices with warnings that their children had joined IS. As a result the Adiyaman Prosecutor had started an investigation, in which telephone wiretaps revealed an IS cell in the city. The prosecutor had written an indictment including Y.E. Alagöz, who in May 2015 was heard on a wiretapped conversation with his other brother Yusuf. The recording makes clear that Yunus Emre was planning a suicide bombing.

On October 19, Cumhuriyet recorded that a convoy of CHP Parliamentarians had visited Adıyaman in August and prepared a report on the IS activity there: “in the report almost exactly the same findings turned up as are now in the main prosecutor’s indictment.” The report also states that, “ambulances bringing wounded people across the border from Syria returned to that country carrying young militants from Turkey.”

The government has not taken kindly to such “I told you so” narratives. The same week Hürriyet reminded its readers that it had been publishing reports on Alagöz and his IS associate Orhan Gönder, who bombed a HDP rally in June, months before their respective crimes. The government responded by opening an investigation into the newspaper for breaking the publication ban it had laid down on the Ankara massacre.

This ban was soon lifted, but Hürriyet and Cumhuriyet both figured on a list of newspapers that an AKP Parliamentarian promised to “hold to account” once the government had a free hand to pursue the country’s enemies after the election. This is not an idle threat. A week before the election the government invoked a law concerning commercial malpractice to take over a conglomerate owning several media outlets that had reported on previous allegations of state support for IS. With this story the journalists were seconding the work of Cumhuriyet’s Can Dündar, whose investigation of intelligence service (MİT) weapons shipments to Syria led to government demands for multiple life sentences.

The company’s state-appointed caretaker immediately “pulled the plug” on two television stations and purged critical journalists from the Gülenist newspaper Bugün. A week after the election, a total of seventy-one journalists had been fired and two arrested.

As if in response to the hostile press, the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office announced on October 27 that about 5% of the digital materials collected in an investigation on IS cells had been deciphered and the following had come out: IS cells had organized with a general headquarters in Gaziantep, directed the bombings in Suruç and Ankara, and planned additional bombings of HDP party rallies under orders from their commanders in Syria. They offered the following interpretation: that IS wanted to delay the election, prevent the formation of any government, legitimize PKK attacks on the country by giving people the sense that the state is attacking its own people, and thus drag the country toward further instability and violence.

Some of these interpretations sound like the government’s line: in particular the evocation of “stability” and the insinuation that the PKK and IS share a common agenda. One should not conclude, though, that the prosecutor’s statement is a smokescreen. Some of the information divulged matches reports that investigative journalists had previously filed in the oppositional press. The socialist daily BirGün had reported a few days earlier:

“A four-story building in Antep allegedly belonging to the Free Syrian Army…is protected twenty-four hours a day by security forces… Though the road is open to traffic no one is allowed to stop or slow down on that stretch and guards are on duty with electronic equipment sending warning signals.”

This story goes right to the heart of the AKP’s murky war effort in Syria, raising troubling questions about the organizational camouflage under which that effort has proceeded. The Free Syrian Army, described by some commentators as more of a brand name than a discrete organizational unity, has seen its banner flown in various and inconsistent contexts. FSA units have assisted the Kurdish YPG in its defense of the Kobanê canton from IS, but other FSA commanders have reportedly massacred Christian and Alawite villages and cooperated with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra.

The BirGün article connects the building in Gaziantep to an IS member code-named Emir Ebu Ali, whom prosecutors had named as the commander who ordered the Ankara bombing. Yet BirGün had already identified this man as the head of a Gaziantep IS cell on May 5, with no apparent response from the government. On October 26, BirGün continues:

“We called the President of the Antep Bar Association Bektaş Şarklı to talk about these accusations and images. He said that various armed Islamist outfits have organized in the city for years and that they [the lawyers] had been making necessary warnings on this topic for years. He continued: “We also get information on cell-houses in Antep. However many warnings we make, no one takes us seriously.”

HDP Parliamentarian Mahmut Toğrul told the newspaper he had made appeals to the Gaziantep Governorate (Valilik) concerning the jihadists only to be rebuffed with the accusation that he bore ill will toward Syrian refugees. Toğrul further describes Gaziantep as the fundamentalists’ “logistical hub.”

The Implications

The state knew about the IS activity in Turkey, probably wanted to control it, but did nothing to stop it when it threatened to attack the AKP’s political opponents. What is more, one of the government’s first reactions to the attack itself was to punish those who had tried to prevent it. Both the problem and the news about it are hard to contain, being part and parcel of a clandestine military intervention in a neighboring country. This intervention is a prime source of the current press crackdown in Turkey itself, proving that war abroad leads to repression at home.

Turkey’s acquiescence in fundamentalist violence in no way entails that IS militants see Turkey as an unconditional ally, nor would it prevent firefights from breaking out should the state attempt to exert control. This seems to be what happened in Diyarbakır last Tuesday when two policemen fell victim to IS bullets in an attempt to raid a safe house.

IS militants still recognize Erdoğan and his ministers as ungodly (tağut) and are keen to remind would-be supporters of this in propaganda videos aimed at Turks who might want to emigrate to the Islamic State. One IS video message even accuses Erdoğan of “selling the country to the crusaders and the PKK,” which makes one wonder how separate the pan-Islamic and ultranationalist camps it addresses have ever really been.

Such battles as do break out between fundamentalists and the police lend credibility to the government’s claim to be fighting an all-purpose “war on terrorism” including both IS and the PKK. Over the last few months this claim has suffused everyday life in Turkey, as in the countless posters adorning the windows of minibuses depicting a wind-rippled Turkish flag with the inscription, “we condemn terror!”

In last weekend’s election the imperative to fight “terror,” in which left-wing elements will always be priority targets, has merged with the dictates of the global market: the word “stability” carries both meanings. As a hitherto fractious Turkish Right closed ranks around the menace of a left-wing pro-Kurdish party in parliament, the currency markets nodded their approval with a sharp rise in the value of the Turkish Lira against the US Dollar early this week. While locally the election indicates a convergence of nationalist and Islamist currents that had previously been rivals, globally it presents another example, so prevalent these days, of the viability of authoritarian capitalism.

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