Turkish President Erdogan has announced that the country will again head to the polls, most likely on November 1, after coalition talks fell apart between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the other parties following the June 7 election. That poll saw the support for the AKP slide to 40% of the vote, forcing it to find a coalition partner and bringing Erdogan’s plans to implement a more presidential system (thus giving himself more power) to a halt. But now, being engulfed in violence with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) under the banner of fighting the Islamic State (IS), Erdogan will again attempt to get a majority and to change the Turkish system to favor his ambitions. But in the precarious security situation that Turkey now finds itself, where is he leading the country?
Even though Turkey was relatively peaceful before the June elections, the campaign was marred by violence. Countless attacks against provincial party headquarters were reported, especially in the southeast. The elections were carried out and the results must have been devastating for Erdogan and the AKP. The party lost 8 percentage points to fall to 40% of the vote while the leftist and pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) overcame the country’s ridiculous 10% threshold to enter parliament, garnering 13% of the vote. Bruised from the “defeat”, Erdogan took the backseat and remained silent after the elections as it became clear that negotiation talks would have to begin.
However, before the negotiations could get very far, the country was plunged into violence.
On July 20, a suicide bombing struck the town of Suruc, killing 33 people who were about to embark on a journey to help rebuild the city of Kobane in northern Syria which had been destroyed by IS. Immediately following this bombing, blamed on but not claimed by IS, PKK militants killed two Turkish police officers at the Syrian border, blaming them for allowing IS militants to enter the country. Just a couple days later, on July 24, Turkey started an air strike campaign that it claimed was aimed at IS and the PKK. Turkey stated that it would treat IS and PKK targets equally, leading to some (the EU and the US) to call on the country to “act proportionality” towards the PKK. Turkish airbases are not being used to launch strikes by the US and its NATO allies, and Turkey, after years of reluctance, has stated that it has finally entered the fight against IS.
However, Turkey seems intent on targeting the PKK rather than IS. Many are accusing the country of using the IS campaign as a cover to attack and weaken the Kurds, especially in Iraq and Syria. To understand this, the situation in northern Syria and Iraq need to be taken into account.
Kurdish fighters in these two regions have been the “boots on the ground” fighting IS as the West carries out its air strikes. They have been the ones to take back land that IS has formally conquered, in a context of weak Syrian and Iraqi armies. Specifically, the Kurds have taken control over land in the north of each country, in areas that border Turkey. It is no coincidence that Turkey has called for a “IS-free Zone” on a stretch of land in northern Syria that has not yet been captured by the Kurds. If it were to be in the Kurds’ control, it would establish a continuous link of Kurdish-held land from western Syria to northern Iraq, bordering Kurdish-majority areas in southeast Turkey, a precursor for some kind of possible Kurdish state, something that Turkey has been working against for decades (tens of thousands have died over the course of several decades in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state).
The airstrike campaign has essentially ended the 2013 ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK with daily acts of violence occurring in the southeast, notably in the provinces near the Syrian and Iraq borders, but also in Tunceli and Van provinces. PKK militants regularly clash with Turkish soldiers and carry out roadside bombings targeting military convoys. Iran has closed its border and warned its citizens against travelling to Turkey by road due to security concerns and attacks on some of its trucks.
Meanwhile, Istanbul has also seen several instances of violence. The Gazi neighborhood of the city erupted in late July with several days of protests and riots following a police raid that killed a leftist activist. More recently, on August 10, two assailants shot at the US Consulate (claimed by the leftists Revolutionary people’s Liberation Party-Front [DHKP-C]) while a car bomb struck a police station in an unrelated incident the same day. Shots were also fired at police guarding the Dolmabahce Palace on August 19.
Police raids are very common now, across the country, including Ankara and Istanbul. At least 1,600 people have been arrested so far. Many of these raids ends in clashes and activists (often leftists) being killed.
It is in this context that President Erdogan has called for new elections after the failure of coalition talks. If the June election campaign was marked by violence, there is no telling what the campaign will look like in the run-up to the November election. The southeast of the country should especially see violence targeting party headquarters or even politicians. It is also unclear how the Turkish voter will react to the events that have occurred since the last election. Although the HDP secured enough votes to enter parliament, it is feasible that the party could fall below 10% and be kicked out, ensuring the AKP gets its majority, and perhaps even a two thirds majority that it wants to change the constitution to usher in a more presidential system. Voters might flock to the AKP who may seem more ready and able to tackle the new found security issues across the country.
Erdogan is leading the country down a dangerous path of instability. Political instability is now placed on top of security instability. Protests and riots in Istanbul, daily attacks by the PKK in the southeast, fighting along the border areas, nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, and the fallout from conducting police raids targeting leftists are all present as the country heads into another election campaign, led by Erdogan pushing for his own ambitious goals to be a powerful Turkish president.