Climate of fear grows in Turkey as campaigning wraps up for key vote

Friday 30/10/2015
Election will decide Turkey’s future

ISTANBUL - Turkish politicians hold their final campaign rallies Saturday for a vote many fear is unlikely to bring an end to months of instability as the country confronts bloody jihadist attacks and a renewed Kurdish conflict.

Opinion polls are predicting a replay Sunday of the shock June election which stripped the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its majority after 13 years of single-party rule, leaving the country without a government after coalition talks failed.

Turkey goes into the election more polarised than ever on ethnic and sectarian lines, and deeply on edge after the October 10 bombings in Ankara that killed 102 people, the worst in the country's modern history.

The AKP of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is tipped to win between 40 and 43 percent of the vote, paving the way either for a shaky coalition that many analysts say will not last long -- or yet another election.

"Sunday's vote will have existential importance on the future of Turkey," said Yusuf Kanli, a commentator at Hurriyet Daily News.

Another inconclusive result could trigger further turmoil in the Muslim-majority country, with fears of a return to all-out war between Turkish security forces and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels after renewed violence shattered a truce in July.

Alarm bells are also ringing about the state of democracy in the country of 78 million following a string of high-profile police raids and prosecutions against media groups and journalists considered critical of Erdogan and his government.

The June result put paid to Erdogan's hopes of expanding his role into a powerful US-style executive presidency that opponents fear would mean fewer checks and balances on a man seen as increasingly autocratic.

"Sunday's parliamentary elections will really be about curbing or enhancing Erdogan's power," said Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

A total of 54 million Turks are registered to vote, but observers say fatigue has set in, and the run-up to the election has been much more low-key than the frenzied campaigning ahead of the June poll.

Security remains the paramount concern after the bloody attack on a peace rally in Ankara that prosecutors say was carried out by a sleeper cell on the orders of the Islamic State group to disrupt Sunday's election.

Police have rounded up scores of IS suspects in raids across the country amid media reports that a jihadist cell could be planning a spectacular attack such as a hijacking.

"We need a strong government to guarantee stability," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a close Erdogan ally, said on Friday.

The Ankara atrocity followed a similar bombing on Kurdish activists in a town on the Syrian border in July that thrust the NATO ally into a "war on terrorism" against IS extremists and PKK rebels in Turkey and Iraq.

Ankara, which is already struggling with more than two million Syrian refugees, found itself drawn directly into the quagmire across the border this summer.

It joined the US-led coalition against Islamic State fighters in July, after initially helping some Islamic rebel groups opposed to the Damascus regime.

But concerns about Turkey's domestic and foreign policies have seen it more isolated on the international stage, as relations with the EU and US cool and it loses friends in the Middle East.

Turkey's faltering economy is also at risk, with growth slowing sharply from the dizzy heights of five years ago and the Turkish lira plunging around 26 percent so far in 2015.

All eyes will again be on the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which made history in June when it became the first pro-Kurdish movement in parliament and gained enough seats to block an AKP majority.

Analysts expect the AKP to try to form a coalition with at least one other party in the event of another hung parliament, probably the secular Republican People's Party (CHP) which came second in June.

But the outcome could leave Turkey without a government as it hosts world leaders, including US President Barack Obama for the G20 summit in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya on November 15 and 16.

Davutoglu, who could be fighting for his political life if the AKP fails again to win at least 276 of the 550 seats in parliament, insisted another election was not on the cards for fatigued voters.

"Turkey would not tolerate another rerun," he said this week.