Turkey: Erdogan’s security policy threatens to undermine ruling party ahead of November election
Security has significantly worsened in Turkey since the Justice and Development (AKP) party failed to secure a majority in the June parliamentary elections. The resumption of full-scale conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and a continued threat from Islamic State militancy in border regions and major cities show no signs of abating in the short term. Although unrest in the southeast could still derail the election process, the current instability and the failure of efforts by President Erdogan to erode support for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) suggest the AKP will still struggle to secure a majority in the 1 November vote.
The resumption of the conflict
The two-year ceasefire between the government and the PKK came to an abrupt halt in late July following a Kurdish attack on the Turkish security forces, reportedly in retaliation for the perceived government failure to prevent a fatal Islamist attack in the Kurdish-majority town of Suruc. The escalation of violence since shows no sign of abating and, if maintained, could propel the conflict toward the height of the violence witnessed in the 1990s.
Ankara has broadened its attacks against the PKK, including tens of air strikes and a military incursion into northern Iraq and the imposition of curfews in some areas, including the town of Cizre from 4-12 September. The PKK has sharply escalated its activities against the security forces, conducting guerrilla attacks across the southeast, including ambushes that killed 16 soldiers in Daglica on 6 September and 14 in Igdir two days later. As part of the preceding peace process, many PKK fighters were withdrawn from their traditional bases in the mountainous area near the Turkish-Iraqi border and repositioned inside the cities of southeast Turkey, increasing the vulnerability of urban areas in the southeast. More than 100 security personnel have been killed in the recent outbreak of conflict to date while the government claims to have killed around 2,000 PKK fighters, though media estimates are closer to 1,000. There have also been several attacks against energy infrastructure, affecting critical oil and gas pipelines linking Turkey to Iran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. An attack on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which is vital to KRG oil exports, forced the closure of the line from 29 July until 5 August, resulting in the estimated loss of USD 250 mn in revenues to Erbil.
Additional security threats
As well as the resumption of the PKK conflict, Turkey has also experienced increased threats from Islamic terrorism in 2015. Prior to the Suruc attack in July, Ankara had managed to strike a precarious balance between Islamist militant forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Turkey’s major ally in Washington. The government had seemingly tolerated the cross-border movement of Islamist fighters, including those affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group, and also resisted US requests to become directly involved in operations against the group. In late 2014, following sustained pressure from Washington, along with violent Kurdish protests over the failure to assist the Syrian border town of Kobane against an Islamic State siege, Turkey allowed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to cross its territory to prevent the fall of the town. In so doing, Ankara managed to mollify the Kurds and the US, while still limiting its involvement in operations against IS.
Following the Suruc attack, however, Ankara switched to a policy of direct involvement in the anti-IS coalition, first facilitating US air strikes, and then carrying out attacks of its own against the group in Syria. This has provoked a call by IS for supporters to attack Turkish targets and to conquer Istanbul. Given the position of Turkey as a primary conduit for Islamist fighters travelling to and from IS-controlled territory, it is now considered vulnerable to further attacks.
In addition, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a Marxist organisation, has conducted sporadic attacks against the government as well as US interests and has contributed to perceptions of insecurity in Turkey. An attack by two of the group’s fighters against the US consulate in Istanbul in August 2015 followed soon after the government had granted permission to Washington to utilise Turkish air bases for military operations in Iraq and Syria.
Implicating the HDP
President Erdogan has been widely accused of using the attacks against the PKK to generate nationalist support for the AKP ahead of the November elections. In recent weeks, the AKP has increasingly attempted to cast the HDP as the political mouthpiece of the PKK, in an effort to erode the 13 percent that the HDP achieved in the June vote, which gave the party 80 deputies to parliament. This ultimately prevented the AKP from forming a viable coalition government and forced Erdogan to call the upcoming election rerun. If in November the HDP fails to achieve the 10 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, it is highly likely the AKP’s majority will be restored.
The AKP’s efforts to weaken the HDP’s popularity do not, however, appear to be succeeding and recent polls suggest the party still maintains similar levels of support to those achieved in the June election. The government’s overzealous means of attacking the party and its areas of support – such as with the curfew in Cizre and mass arrests of party supporters – could actually bolster the HDP’s popularity. The government has been linked to mob violence and attacks on HDP offices and Kurdish businesses, as well as media outlets considered critical of the government, with the US State Department warning the AKP against involvement in such activity on 9 September. Furthermore, media reports have also pointed to significant discontent among members of the military and their families, who view the resumption of full-scale conflict with the PKK as unnecessary, especially given the threats facing the country from Syria.
On 13 September, the HDP chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, called upon the PKK to instate a ceasefire and resume talks with Ankara, in a clear attempt to head off the AKP’s efforts to portray his party as complicit in the PKK’s campaign of violence.
The insurgency appears likely to persist at least until the election, and the AKP has given little consideration to a ceasefire agreement since the conflict intensified in July. Therefore, attacks against security personnel in the southeast and military air strikes targeting PKK strongholds will persist and key energy infrastructure will remain vulnerable to attack. Major cities could also be targeted by Kurdish militants near to the date of the election, while the ongoing threat from IS, lower-level DHKP-C activity and likely large security deployments in Istanbul and Ankara ahead of the 1 November vote will all contribute to a growing sense of insecurity among the electorate. The PKK also shows signs of increasing internal divisions, with imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan a somewhat diminished figure. Internal divisions will make any possible future ceasefire difficult to implement among thousands of PKK fighters in a unified fashion. Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek has warned of the threat to the economy, which is already suffering from slowing growth and a very high budget deficit.
As a result, the AKP could again suffer in the November election, ensuring the backfiring of Erdogan’s efforts to secure a parliamentary majority for the party. Local media reports and the latest polling bring into question the AKP’s prospects of regaining its majority in November, and English language daily Today’s Zaman has suggested that the AKP may even secure fewer votes than during the June election.
There remains the prospect of the election being postponed, with Erdogan possessing the constitutional right to delay it by a year on the grounds that the country is in a state of war. A further possibility is that of a partial election, with the security situation in the southeast deemed too severe to stage polls in the region. Indeed, HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas has voiced his concern that under the current conditions, the election will be impossible to stage in the southeast. An exclusion of a large proportion of Kurdish voters from the ballot could undermine the HDP’s support, thus favouring the AKP, but this scenario will be considered undemocratic and would likely intensify current levels of violence.