Kurdish bomb attacks help Erdogan’s bid for more power
London - Twin bomb attacks by Kurdish militants on Turkish police guarding an Istanbul football stadium are likely to strengthen President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid to rule the country with sweeping executive powers.
Thirty-eight people, most of them police, were killed and 155 wounded when a car bomb and suicide bomb were detonated December 10th next to a major football ground in Turkey’s largest city.
A shadowy group called the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) claimed responsibility for the attack. Formed in 2004, TAK has carried out a string of high-profile bombings in western Turkey.
Turkish authorities say TAK is a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which took up arms for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east in 1984. The PKK denied this and analysts say it is unclear what the relationship is between the two militant groups, though they share the same goal.
Erdogan’s Islamist government raised hopes for an end to the violence that has cost tens of thousands of lives by opening peace talks with the PKK in 2012 but negotiations broke down in 2015. Since then, the International Crisis Group said, 2,500 people — nearly 400 of them civilians — have been killed in fighting between the PKK and security forces.
The Istanbul blasts were shortly after Erdogan published a draft constitution to replace one introduced during military rule in 1982. The draft will be sent to parliament where it needs the support of two-thirds of the 550 members to directly become law. If, as appears likely, it falls short of the needed 367 votes but still passes with more than 330 votes, it can be put to a referendum.
The new constitution would clear the way for Erdogan to rule with sweeping powers and potentially remain in office till 2029.
“This package of proposals largely satisfies Erdogan’s wish list as it gets very close to the full executive presidential system he has long sought,” Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at the Eurasia Group consultancy, was quoted as saying in the Financial Times. “Not only is the prime minister’s office abolished but parliament’s role will be massively diluted — basically converting the legislative branch into something of a rubber stamp.”
Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule has worried the European Union, which is split on whether to maintain incentives for Turkey or admit that Ankara’s departure from democratic norms is such that its decades-old bid to join the bloc is over.
Erdogan has threatened to open its borders and let a flood of refugees into Europe should EU entry talks be suspended. Criticism from the European Union and US support for Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) feeds Erdogan’s statements regarding a Western conspiracy aimed at thwarting Turkey’s rise to regional and global pre-eminence.
A day after the Istanbul bombings, a pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper’s headline declared the PKK was “the subcontractor of Europe and America”.
Erdogan was also typically defiant.
“I am calling on all my citizens. As the president of the state of Turkey, I am announcing a national mobilisation against all terror groups,” the state-run Anadolu news agency quoted him as saying.
Turkish authorities extended a crackdown against the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a mainly Kurdish party and the third largest in parliament, arresting nearly 300 of its members and officials. Twelve of the HDP’s 59 members of parliament, including its two leaders, have been arrested and charged with terrorism crimes.
Erdogan claims the HDP is part of the PKK. Party officials deny the charge and call for a return to peace talks. The HDP condemned the bombings but said it provided the government with pretext to crack down on the opposition.
“This a big purge,” Time magazine quoted leading HDP member Ayse Berktay as saying. “This is not about terror or terrorism. It’s about wiping out democratic opposition.”
Tens of thousands of government employees — from teachers to midwives — have been sacked or suspended since a failed July coup, which Erdogan blames on a rival Islamist network led by US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen. About 32,000 people have been arrested in connection with the plot.
The failed coup provided an opportunity to eliminate an erstwhile ally in the shape of Gulen’s Hizmet movement. Attacks by TAK and the PKK, especially those hitting Turkey’s western cities far from the usual focus of the conflict in the mainly Kurdish south-east, help quell domestic disquiet about the crackdown on the Kurdish parliamentary opposition.
Despite the end of the PKK ceasefire in July 2015, many secular Turks voted for the HDP in elections the following November to help prevent Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) gaining the 367 votes in parliament he wanted to control to change the constitution without a referendum.
A steady increase in violence since then has allowed Erdogan to claim that Turkey faces existential threats and that a strong presidency is the only answer.
Erdogan’s increasing grip on power, however, has gone hand-in-hand with a rise in violence.
“The more power has been concentrated in Erdogan’s hands, the more the situation in the country has deteriorated — socially, politically, economically and in terms of security. Most dangerously, Erdogan’s conspiracy theories increasingly portray his domestic opponents and critics as serving foreign powers who are desperately plotting to undermine him,” Gareth Jenkins wrote in the Turkey Analyst, a biweekly briefing.
“He has arguably made his political survival dependent on sustained tension and the inoculation of a siege mentality amongst his supporters. The fear is that the cost — socially, politically, economically and in bloodshed — is only going to rise over the months and years ahead.”