By Jenaline Pyle and Benjamin Bilgen
Turkey, still mourning after last Saturday’s terrorist attack in Istanbul, which left 44 dead and over a hundred injured, has been struck by tragedy once again. Yesterday’s car bombing targeted military personnel in Kayseri, claiming 14 lives so far with dozens more injured.
Last week’s attack was claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK), and yesterday’s bombing bears striking resemblance, representing a significant escalation in tensions between militant Kurds and the Turkish state.
On Thursday, President Erdoğan met with security and governmental officials to discuss the implications of the two suicide bombings in Istanbul. Although no statement was released following the meeting, the gathering was overshadowed by the statements of the president, who had called for “national mobilization against all terrorist organizations” following the catastrophic attack.
Broadening definitions of terrorism
The government’s stance in the aftermath of the failed coup in July has been central to dramatically expanding definitions of terrorism in Turkey. Previously the term referred primarily to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who have been embroiled in armed conflict with Turkish state forces in the eastern provinces this past year after the ceasefire agreements collapsed in 2015.
In addition, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), who claimed responsibility for both the Istanbul attacks and earlier attacks in Ankara, has become increasingly central to the issue of terrorism in Turkey.
TAK identifies itself as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), who branched off from the PKK in the early 2000s claiming that the PKK had strayed from its more radical ambitions. However, some analysts argue TAK remains tied to the PKK, functioning as a PR front for the PKK to organize violent attacks without directly claiming responsibility.
The ambiguity of the institutional boundaries of the PKK has impacted other Kurdish political groups as well, including non-violent progressive advocates who have sought to resolve the decades-old conflict.
TAK (and by extension for much of society, the PKK) have massively increased their activities since the end of the ceasefire – with devastating consequences – breaking down much of the societal trust in the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) born from their peace negotiations and non-violent message.
Following the attack on Saturday, the HDP party headquarters across Turkey including the provinces of Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Manisa, Mersin, and Mardin, have been raided by police and 129 HDP party members have been taken into custody following the raids. The raids and arrests were justified by security officials as being part of a nationwide crackdown on terror.
Yet as valid security threats continue to spread chaos across the nation, the government’s linguistic dragnet tightens around those declared as terrorists. With journalists, academics and members of parliament imprisoned, there are concerns over increasingly slippery definitions of terrorism and the corrosive use of executive power against it.
Following yesterday’s bombing in Kayseri, government followers appear to have taken up the President’s words, with a hundreds of protesters attacking the HDP headquarters in the city, as well as a number of opposition party headquarters, including representatives of the Republican People’s Party who were protected by Turkish security forces.
The HDP is the third largest representative party in the Parliament, linking issues of minority protection, environmental protection, worker rights, and urban progressive causes with Kurdish interests, but its political and demographic importance in the broader context of Turkish politics is much more significant.
The success of the HDPs political movement in becoming an influential opposition party in parliament was partially due to its commitment towards resolving the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government. Beginning in 2013, members of the HDP and the government successfully reached a ceasefire settlement with the PKK and were working towards the resolution of the myriad issues surrounding the conflict.
However, two key events have occurred since the brokering of the ceasefire which have led to the deterioration of relations between Turkey and Kurdish groups. Firstly, the conflict in Syria began leaking through the porous border with Turkey including the increased activity of Syrian Kurdish nationalist groups near the Turkish border with ties to the PKK.
At the same time, the results of the 2015 Turkish parliamentary election saw the ousting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from majority rule, largely due to HDP votes. Since then, the government has continued to portray Kurdish groups as unpatriotic and subversive terrorists, a message that resonates increasingly within society.
Counterterrorism and the Presidency
The failed coup in July and the concerning escalation of terrorist attacks by TAK last week and likely yesterday – although no claim has been made yet – threatens to further justify the expansion of President Erdoğan’s powers, including the further incorporation of the HDP under the umbrella of terrorism. This now extends to detentions of academics, journalists, writers, lawyers, judiciary members, even members of parliament without trial; the closure of media and other corporate holdings; the appropriation of corporate assets or control; and the massive firings of civil servants.
President Erdoğan has demonstrated the extent to which he is willing to break Turkey’s constitution; declaring that he has a right to use executive authority under the extended state of emergency (under which the right to appeal legal actions to the constitutional court is not guaranteed, effectively overriding the constitution itself). The appeal of an executive presidency may be the legitimacy it could confer for the political power already used.
While the terror attacks by TAK seem to be providing President Erdoğan with an opportunity to justify the need for a strong Presidential system, the expansion of his executive powers may only serve to further entrench the country in instability and increased terror efforts by TAK and the PKK.
By arresting and detaining HDP members and Kurds, even those who once might have worked with the government to achieve a peaceful resolution with the PKK, progressive advocates are frightened to cooperate or even work towards a peaceful solution. Reduced opportunities for resolution and cooperation making attacks such as those Istanbul and Kayseri this month more likely.
Conversely, the increasingly violent tactics of TAK and their apparent willingness to risk mass civilian casualties has added greater momentum to the spiralling cycle of violence. With Kurdish elected state representatives in prison and in a climate of aggressive clamping down on any expression of dissent, groups such as TAK may become more appealing to some parts of society.
As legitimate avenues for resistance close; the false choice between political and armed resistance becomes increasingly compelling. However, if the violence and terror of the 1990s shows anything, it is that this is an endless spiral of violence that neither side can afford.
However, the Turkish government is also culpable in the spiralling cycle of violence. The very way in which Erdoğan has sought to sustain and increase his political power systematically undermining Turkey’s democratic foundations. The popular appeal to vigilantism and retribution, beyond the bounds of the judicial system is mirrored in the President’s statement earlier this week: We cannot leave our security solely in the hands of the security forces. I am calling on all my citizens to help our security forces.
This direct appeal would have citizens bypass the democratic institutions, which are intended to prevent such overreach, and is already playing out in Kayseri with predictable violence and chaos ensuing. Just as the government is using the extended state of emergency powers and expanded executive authority to crack down on political enemies, there is concern that popular anger may expand to match, making peaceful resolution of the Kurdish conflict more challenging, and undermining the protection of democratic institutions.