Why is peace a threat to Turkey’s rulers?

October 12, 2015

Alan Maass and Tom Gagné look at what led to the massacre in Turkey's capital city.

THE HORRIFIC bombing of a peace march in Ankara is the latest escalation of a deadly war on the Kurdish movement and the left in Turkey. Whoever is directly responsible for this mass murder, the U.S.-backed government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has blood on its hands.

By late Sunday, 36 hours after two explosions, apparently detonated by suicide bombers, ripped through a crowd outside Ankara's central train station, the death toll had risen to 128, with hundreds more injured.

Thousands of people had gathered that Saturday morning for a march and rally to protest months of worsening violence, largely committed by the Turkish government against Kurdish opponents. The demonstration was called by an alliance of unions and left and progressive organizations, including the Confederation of Public Workers' Unions, Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions, Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, and Turkish Medical Association.

Mourning the victims of the bombing of a peace march in Ankara
Mourning the victims of the bombing of a peace march in Ankara

"It was a peaceful demonstration," wrote Arife Kose, a Turkish activist and member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party, in an eyewitness report for Socialist Worker in Britain. "We were not carrying guns or sticks, only our banners and peace flags. Then came the explosions."

ACCORDING TO reports, the blasts occurred at the designated gathering point for the People's Democracy Party (HDP)--an alliance of pro-Kurdish and left-wing forces whose dramatic success in the June general elections has upended Turkish politics and caused a crisis for the Erdoğan government, which was denied a parliamentary majority to continue its effective one-party rule.

Last July, a suicide bomber struck at a gathering of pro-Kurdish youth organizations in the town of Suruç on the southern border with Syria, killing 32 people. That attack was blamed on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose war to establish a Sunni "caliphate" has targeted, among others, Kurds in both countries--most notoriously, during the siege of Kobanê, a city in northern Syria across the border from Suruç, which Kurdish fighters successfully defended against ISIS.

But as the HDP and others pointed out at the time, the bombing coincided with the AKP government's crackdown against the Kurdish movement and other political opponents following its election setback--and the ruling party's attempt to rebuild popular support with scaremongering about threats to national security.

Now, with new elections set for November 1, the terrorist violence against Kurds and the left has struck in the capital city of Ankara, and with an even higher toll.

Yet the HDP's enemies blamed the victims of this barbaric assault. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that the government suspected not only ISIS, but possibly Kurdish rebels and radical left groups. Veysel Eroğlu, the minister for forestry and water, went further, blaming organizers of the peace march for causing violence. "Our people need to be careful of such provocateurs that organize terrorist demonstrations in order to incite discord in social harmony," he said.

The government's sickening attitude was plain from within minutes of the attack. An HDP statement issued later on Saturday pointed out that "there were no police around the crime scene when the explosions occurred. The riot police arrived at the site 15 minutes later. But when they arrived, they used tear gas grenades against people who intended to help the injured."

One man who learned from Facebook that his nephew had been killed described how people who came to the plaza faced police violence. "These are our children, and they would not let us help them," he told a Guardian reporter. "I saw arms, legs and heads severed from their bodies."

HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş responded angrily after he was accused of exploiting the bombings for electoral gain:

Who are you to keep threatening us? We will not allow you to kill us like this, day after day. We are the ones who are dying. We are the police, the soldiers, we are the Kurds and the Turks who are dying. Your children are not the ones that are killed. That is why we are not the ones who should be held responsible, but you are.

The next day in Ankara, more than 1,000 people came to the site of the bombings to mourn the victims and send the message that the Erdoğan government must be held responsible. In Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, as many as 10,000 people marched down a central avenue to denounce the attack. There were solidarity demonstrations numbering in the hundreds and thousands in several European cities.

THE TWIN bomb blasts in Ankara evoke memories of past episodes of political violence in Turkey--battles between far-right nationalists and left-wing organizations during the 1970s, which served as a justification for the military to carry out coups in 1971 and 1980, as well as the three-decade-long war between the government and the insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), estimated to have cost 40,000 lives.

Erdoğan no doubt wanted to play on the widespread fears of a return to violence with his statement calling for "national unity" in the face of terrorism: "I fiercely condemn the hateful attack against our unity and solidarity and our country's peace...There is no difference between the previous attacks against our soldiers, police officers, village guards, public officials and innocent citizens, and this terrorist attack against civilians at Ankara train station today."

But there are differences. For one, the ruthless war on Kurds and the pro-democracy movement, centered specifically on the HDP now, has claimed many more victims. For another, the AKP government has a stake in the violence against the left continuing, as Simon Tisdall explained in a Guardian analysis:

Many in Turkey accuse Erdoğan of deliberately fueling a reviving conflict with militant Kurdish groups, including the outlawed PKK, ‎in order to scare voters into supporting his law-and-order, security-first platform in the coming elections. If he succeeds, it is argued, he will seize more powers for the presidency and promote himself as a sort of modern-day Sublime Porte. Thus, it is suggested, the last thing Erdoğan really wants at this juncture is a Kurdish peace.

BOTH THE HDP's growing profile and the AKP's crisis date in particular from the Gezi Park rebellion in spring 2013, the so-called Turkish Spring.

When activists in Istanbul organized a small, peaceful occupation to protect Gezi Park--one of the last remaining green spaces in the huge city, slated to be bulldozed in the AKP's latest "urban renewal" project--the government responded with a massive police crackdown. This sparked mass protests that spread across Istanbul and then around the country. As SocialistWorker.org reported:

The demonstrations were a lightning rod for other grievances with the AKP and its neoliberal policies, which have massively increased inequality--the richest 1 percent of Turkey's population now own 54 percent of the country's wealth, up from 39 percent when the AKP came to power 14 years ago...

The following year, protests in response to revelations of corruption involving top AKP officials, with close connections to Erdoğan, threatened a repeat of the Gezi upsurge. A few months later, when an explosion and underground fire in a coal mine in Soma in the western province of Manisa killed 301 miners, the government's callous and negligent behavior further alienated working people.

This set the stage for the HDP's election breakthrough. The left-wing party's base is among Kurds, an oppressed minority spread across not only Turkey, where they account for about 20 percent of the population, but Iran, Iraq and Syria. However, because of the post-Gezi radicalization, the HDP was able to win support from other religious and ethnic minorities, such as Yazidis and Armenians, as well as the radical left and secular moderates outside Kurdish areas.

This is precisely the cross-section of the population that gathered last Saturday in Ankara to march for peace.

Despite a campaign of intimidation and violence before the June general elections, the HDP was able to win 13.1 percent of the vote, easily surpassing the 10 percent threshold for a party to qualify for seats in parliament. This extra-high percentage was put into the constitution during the military dictatorship specifically to keep Kurdish and left representation out of parliament--so the HDP challenge, with its mobilization of wider support in Turkish society, is a historic achievement.

At 40.9 percent, the AKP still won the most votes in the June election, but the HDP's success denied the former ruling party an outright majority in parliament--and with it, Erdoğan's plans to rewrite the country's constitution to give the presidency greater powers.

When Prime Minister Davutoğlu failed to gain support from other opposition parties for a coalition government, new elections were set for November 1--and the regime immediately intensified political repression and state violence. Its aim is to create an atmosphere of chaos and crisis--both to win votes from the nationalist right and to reduce, by whatever means it can muster, the turnout for the left-wing HDP below the 10 percent threshold.

THIS--ALONG with the overwhelming international solidarity with the Kobanê resistance in northern Syria--explains why the AKP restarted the government's brutal war on the Kurds.

Previously, in addition to implementing various social welfare measures that gave the AKP's center-right political Islamism a populist sheen, the AKP won support from a war-weary society by initiating a peace process with the PKK. But now, the government has suspended negotiations toward a settlement of the conflict and intensified military operations.

In this, Turkey has the support of the U.S. government. In return for Washington's support for attacking the Kurds, the Erdoğan government began participating in the war on ISIS and gave the U.S. military access to Turkish air bases in the south--though Turkey's main sights are still set on the Kurdish armed resistance. Meanwhile, the AKP began a campaign to paint the HDP as terrorists who want to see the destruction of a "united" Turkish state.

The day after the slaughter in Ankara, the PKK announced a unilateral cease-fire in the run-up to election. Not only did the government disregard the cease-fire, but it ordered new air strikes by Turkish fighter jets against PKK positions that very day, killing 49 "Kurdish militants," according to the government's claims.

When it was time for the White House to respond to the carnage in Ankara this weekend, Obama contacted not the AKP's opponents, but Erdoğan himself, to affirm that the U.S. would "stand with Turkey and its people in the fight against terrorism and other security challenges in the region."

But the Turkish government's "fight against terrorism" is responsible for the horrific attack on a march for peace. It may be that ISIS planned and executed the bombings. It's also possible that far-right nationalist groups--which have a long history of inflicting violence on Kurds and the left--or right-wing elements in the security apparatus are responsible.

But even so, the AKP government is likely to have at least known that the march was in danger. For certain, its scaremongering contributed to an atmosphere of whipped-up hysteria against the Kurds--and it is now trying to exploit the massacre to justify further authoritarian measures.

As Turkish socialist Arife Kose concluded in her eyewitness report:

I think there are two reasons for the explosions. First, the Turkish government wants to prevent peace with Kurds and to push the HDP under the threshold in the coming election. After every incident like this, the government accuses Kurdish people and the HDP of being responsible. It wants to cut the unity between Kurdish and Turkish people who want peace.

The second reason is the situation in the Middle East, particularly Syria. The Turkish government has been very unhappy about the fact that Kurds are making gains in the Middle East. But the foreign policy of the Turkish government and its Western allies is bankrupt. So it punishes Kurds in Turkey...

The two trade unions that helped organize the peace demonstration have called two days of strikes on Monday and Tuesday...in protest. We'll do our best to make the strikes successful and big. We demand the interior minister, prime minister and all the officials who were unable to provide for the security of the demonstration must resign.

We invite everyone who wants peace and democracy to vote for HDP in the coming election. And we say that PEACE WILL WIN!

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