Less than 24 hours remain until Turkey’s November 1 general election, in which voters will elect 550 members to Turkey’s Grand National Assembly. This snap election was called because President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was unable to form a coalition government after the results of the June elections, in which the conservative AKP lost its majority in the Turkish Parliament. With the Syrian conflict raging on the country’s southern border, over 2.2 million Syrian refugees camped inside Turkey, and the Islamic State remaining a threat, this election comes at a moment when Turkey needs strong direction and strategic leadership in both its domestic and international affairs.
One instance of this need arose in recent weeks, when members of the European Union asked Turkey to accept more Syrian refugees in exchange for financial support and other benefits from the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was recently in Istanbul to negotiate these measures with Erdoğan. In exchange for housing the 2 million refugees, policing its borders more heavily, and improving conditions for refugees, Turkey was promised extensive financial support from the EU, as well as easier access to EU visas for Turkish citizens and another look at Turkey’s EU membership bid. With the United States and Russia also pursuing interests in the region, the spotlight is on Turkey during this turbulent time.
As if the stakes were not already high enough, about three weeks ago, Turkey experienced the deadliest terrorist attack in its history. Twin suicide bombings in the capital city of Ankara killed 102 Turkish citizens, most of whom were supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP).
The suicide bombings occurred during a peace rally against the conflict between the Turkish government and the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Southeast Turkey. Data collected from the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) indicate that the latest Ankara suicide bombings resulted in about as many deaths as all suicide attacks within Turkey over the past three decades. According to suicide attack data collected from CPOST, there have been 29 total suicide terrorist attacks in Turkey since 1982, not including the recent twin bombings in Ankara. These 29 suicide attacks have caused a total of 115 deaths and about 1069 wounded, which means that the Ankara bombing resulted in more deaths than all of these previous attacks combined. The PKK has claimed responsibility for ten of these suicide attacks.
Uğur Koçak, an HDP representative and University of Chicago student, says that “we need to remember why these people took to the streets at the capital of their country, and that it was for advocacy for peace which made these brilliant, innocent people targets.” The Ankara attack comes on the heels of a July bombing in which 30 Turkish citizens were killed in Suruç, a Turkish town north of Kobani, Syria. The people gathering in this square had been planning to go to Kobani to help with reconstruction efforts.
In both of these terrorist attacks, Turkish leadership has pinpointed the Islamic State as the group responsible for the suicide attacks. It has identified Yunus Emre Alagoz, one of the two Ankara bombers, as the brother of Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, who was the Suruç suicide bomber. Both brothers have been identified as ISIS affiliates, as they operated an “Islam Tea House” which ISIS had used as a meeting point for several years. Oddly enough, the Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for these attacks, which is noteworthy for a group which is usually quick to take credit for its acts of terror. This has led to some suspicion amongst Turkish audiences.
HDP representative Koçak believes “this attack was made possible due to the absence of preventative work and security measures, which effectively makes the government complicit in the blast.” As evidence of this complicity, Koçak points to the Turkish government's national security failings in preventing an attack in Turkey’s capital city, and the fact that the parliament, police headquarters and the national intelligence agency (MIT) are located within a close radius. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş has also noted flaws in intelligence efforts by the Turkish government. Many HDP supporters thus resent Erdoğan and the AKP for its negligence in both preventing these types of terrorist attacks and responding to them.
A former AKP member of the Turkish Parliament, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, claims that the government’s failings go beyond mere negligence. He says that “since 2013, Turkey’s president has created a political climate in which domestic Islamic State cells have found it easy to prosper.” Kınıklıoğlu believes that “until very recently, Turkish security forces have been soft on Islamic State operatives and lax about their movements across the border.” During Kınıklıoğlu’s time as a Fellow at UChicago’s Institute of Politics, he cited this as one of the many reasons he dissociated himself from the AK Party and took part in the 2013 Gezi Park Protests against Erdoğan.
Even after these devastating suicide bombings and their political fallout, the November 1 election campaign is still in full swing. UChicago student Kaan Ulgen, who supports the center-left, social-democratic CHP party, says that the recent bombings “don’t change the dynamics of the election overall,” but speculates that “[Turkey] will see an increased turnout, as more people across all sides of the spectrum will see the election as more existential.”
President Erdoğan has been calling for unity and national security in light of recent terrorist incidents, as he yearns for a parliamentary majority. The June elections were a tremendous setback for the president, whose AKP failed to gain the number of seats necessary to amend the constitution and expand his powers. Many Turkish citizens believe that he aims to rule as a US-style president. Others have been more cynical, comparing Erdoğan’s leadership style to that of Vladimir Putin in Russia. His aspirations have been made clear not only through his desire to create a presidential system, but also by his building of a $350 million palace, called the “Ak Saray.” This name translates directly to mean, “White Palace,” similar to the American President’s White House.
Koçak, the HDP supporter, hopes that the Turkish people will continue to hold the AK Party accountable for its actions and “unite under the umbrella of a peaceful agenda.” Koçak believes that “[the AKP] will not be able to form a single-majority government” and will “no longer have the authority or the power to single-handedly rule this country.”
After ruling the political scene for 13 years, the AK Party will face internal trouble if it cannot gain a strong majority in the parliament. Most public opinion polls suggest that the outcome of the November 1 elections will resemble that of the June 7 elections, with a four-party parliament in which the HDP gets support from at least 10% of voters and the AKP loses its majority status. In this scenario, the AKP would need to form a coalition with either the HDP, the CHP, or the far-right MHP. In the case that a coalition does not form, Erdoğan could call for yet another election, although this appears unlikely.
Ulgen, the CHP supporter, believes that Erdoğan “will want to form a coalition with the MHP initially because they are the less active party with a closer ideological alignment to the AKP.” However, Ulgen says that “another early election is more likely if the MHP refuses to play ball” and form the coalition government. Koçak believes that an “AKP-CHP grand coalition might be likely if Interim-Prime Minister Davutoğlu can convince President Erdoğan.”
Koçak emphasizes the fact that the Turkish government “needs to form better relations with Kurds fighting ISIS in Syria, lift the amount of government pressure and censorship on the media, take proactive measures to ensure equal representation of women in politics and equal pay in the workforce,” among other reforms.
The results of the November 1 elections will be significant both for the future of the secular Turkish democracy and for the international community, considering the rise of the ISIS threat and the growing Syrian refugee crisis. Former AKP member Suat Kınıklıoğlu believes that “if the AKP is not defeated in the November 1 election, Mr. Erdoğan’s authoritarianism and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s foreign policy could suck Turkey deeper into the Middle East’s vortex of violence.”
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