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Is Turkey Turning Time Back Towards the Dreaded Nineties?

Istanbul, Turkey. 19th August 2015 -- Women protesters shout slogans as they hold pans during an anti-war protest in Istanbul, Turkey. -- Protesters attended an anti-war rally in central Istanbul. The demonstration came on a day that saw gunmen fire on police outside an Istanbul palace and a bomb in the southeast of the country that was thought to have killed eight soldiers.

On August 19, 2015. Women protesters shout slogans as they hold pans during an anti-war protest in Istanbul, Turkey. The demonstration came on a day that saw gunmen fire on police outside an Istanbul palace and a bomb in the southeast of the country that was thought to have killed eight soldiers. Demotix image by Avni Kantan. ID: 8349345.

As a person who was born at a time when the conflict between the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish military first exploded, I witnessed death and attacks every day on television and in the newspapers during my childhood.

My family became closely acquainted with the sorrow of the conflict when my soldier cousin was killed 20 years ago in the eastern city of Muş — always branded a ‘dangerous’ area.

Since the general election on June 7, Turkey has entered a vicious cycle of violence echoing the conflict of the 80s and 90s.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government invested significant political capital in the peace process with the PKK to solve the Kurdish issue: attacks between the PKK and the Turkish army stopped following a ceasefire in 2013.

During the March 2013 Newroz (Kurdish New Year) rally in Diyarbakır, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK movement, called for PKK armed forces to draw back to the Turkish border through a letter he sent from jail.

The peace process was perhaps the most important achievement of AKP’s single party rule dating back to 2002.

It formed the basis for political stability and foreign investment. The economy went from strength to strength, symbolized by the appreciation of the Turkish lira and social welfare approaching European levels.

Unfortunately, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sabotaged his own greatest achievements in the build-up to and aftermath of the 2015 General Election.

His increasing authoritarian streak has helped him alienate supporters among the Kurdish population.

Despite the president's position being constitutionally non-partisan, he has used it to boost support for AKP.

Moreover, in March he said “they keep talking about a Kurdish problem. What are you talking about, brother? What Kurdish problem?”

Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the left-leaning pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) labelled the comments “pre-election attractions”.

HDP, in turn, came under repeated fire from senior AKP figures as support for their political platform grew. Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, who had once accommodated HDP as a partner at the negotiating table, now claimed their increasing popularity was a threat to the very peace process the two parties were a part of. 

Despite more than 100 attacks against HDP rallies or offices during the election campaign, the party managed to break the 10% threshold to gain seats in parliament.

This resulted in the collapse of the AKP parliamentary majority, which in turn cast Erdoğan's plan to change the Turkish constitution to a presidential system of government via super-majority under huge doubt.

Things start to fall apart

As Akdoğan projected, the peace process soon began to unravel.

The first incident was a suicide bomb attack in Suruç on July 20. The bomber was linked with ISIS and killed 34 people, wounding more than 100.

The attack targeted members of socialist youth groups who were in Suruç to plan the reconstruction of Kobani, the Kurdish-populated Syrian border town which had been under siege by ISIS.

Two days after the attack, two policemen were found dead in their home in Ceylanpinar, another town on the Syrian border. 

The next day, another policeman died in an attack by the PKK in Diyarbakir on the same day ISIS fired on Turkish army forces in Kilis from the other side of the Syrian border, killing one soldier.

The deadly attacks that took place in the South-Eastern part of Turkey at the end of July led to the  government’s decision to begin an extensive military operation not only against ISIS but also the PKK.

PM Davutoglu stated that “the operations that began today are not singular, they are part of a process.”

However, so far the majority of the Turkish army's operation has targeted military sites linked to the PKK in Iraq.

Every day, local agencies have reported clashes with Kurdish guerrillas and news of soldiers being martyred, attacks by the PKK on police stations and operations against PKK camps in Kandil.

Between July 20 and August 20, 140 people died throughout Turkey, mostly in Kurdish populated cities. Among those who lost their lives, 55 were civilians, 32 were Kurdish guerrillas and 53 were soldiers or policemen.

Istanbul, Turkey. 19th August 2015 -- Police cordon off the access to the iconic Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, home to the prime minister's Istanbul offices, after a shootout with two armed men, believed to have been captured later in Taksim Square. -- Unknown men attack a police post outside the Dolmabahce Palace with a stun grenade. The Dolmabahçe Palace, popular with tourists, is home to the prime minister's Istanbul offices. 2 suspects with automatic guns have been captured close to Taksim sq.

On August 19, 2015 police cordon off the access to the iconic Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, home to the prime minister's Istanbul offices, after a shootout with two armed men, believed to have been captured later in Taksim Square.  Demotix image by Avni Kantan. ID: 8347856.

While the attacks were reminiscent of the 90s, Turkish society has moved on. During the last two decades Kurds and Turks alike have realised that they want to live together peacefully and solve problems through dialogue.

‘They should go and fight themselves’

The renewed violence makes people feel their needs and demands for peace are being ignored by politicians in favour of parochial ambitions and the struggle for power.

Against a backdrop of martyrs’ funerals, a protest mood is growing.

Recep Beycur was one of eight soldiers in the Turkish army who died following a PKK bombing in the town of Siirt. He came from a Kurdish family like his friend Mehmet Halil Barkın who also died in the attack.

At his funeral one of his relatives accused Erdogan of responsibility for his death.

Ömer Bilir said: “I sent my own brother and I get a corpse in return. Let the President know. Does he have any idea how much I have suffered until this age? Brother is made to fight brother. May God be angry with him, let the same thing befall his son. If it were his son is this how it would be? Let God not accept this.”

The soldier’s family did not allow the Turkish flag to be hung throughout the village or for a military funeral to be held.

Captain Ali Alkan died in a PKK attack on a police station in Şırnak. Alkan’s brother, Lieutenant Colonel Mehmet Alkan, held the coffin while calling his brother’s name: “Ali’m. Who is his murderer? Who is the reason for this? What happened to the ones who were talking about a solution till yesterday now saying war till the end? They should go and fight themselves.”

Yet instead of trying to find a solution, politicians like Energy Minister Taner Yildiz have been fanning the flames of nationalism.

Yildiz said recently he wishes to become a martyr if God allows it — an unlikely possibility for a person who travels in bullet-proof cars and has a coterie of guards around him at any given moment.

Prime Minister Davutoğlu also stated his readiness to die during a “Civil Initiative Against Terrorism” meeting organised by unions: “I hope God may not set the conditions for this nation to sacrifice martyrs again. But we know [we] are ready to sacrifice ourselves and our sons for this country, for this country’s unity, for this nation’s peace… All the world should be aware of this dedication.”

Now, the conflict is moving from the country's political and economic periphery to its core.

I was passing by Dolmabahce Palace to go to Taksim just half an hour before the palace was attacked August 19 by two members of the radical DHKP-C group, who targeted police standing guard with a hand grenade and guns.

Because the policemen were standing inside bullet-proof glass guard rooms, nobody died.

People panicked as a helicopter hovered above Istiklal Street, Istanbul's most famous and overcrowded thoroughfare, because the Taksim region of Istanbul has experienced bomb attacks in the past.

I checked Twitter to see what was going on and saw the news about the attack in Dolmabahce. I felt lucky — separated from the gunfire and grenade blasts by just 30 minutes — but also scared because attacks like this could happen anywhere.

I have been trying to be cautious and avoid crowded places like metro stations for the last month, but there are millions of people living in Istanbul and they cannot all avoid their daily lives.

Election time, again

As the leader of the country's biggest political party, Davutoğlu should have formed a coalition government after the June elections, but the AKP chose to pursue tactics to ensure early elections in which they hope to reclaim their parliamentary majority.

They have had one part of their wish granted after talks on a coalition failed miserably and President Erdoğan called a snap election for November 1 on August 25.

Ongoing security issues may play into AKP’s hands and allowing them to attract the votes of nationalists, even if it is unlikely the party can win back enough support to allow Erdoğan to push through the constitutional reforms he craves.

In the meantime, political instability will result in the budget being tipped towards military spending rather than investment in social welfare.

I cannot imagine that any of the politicians responsible for this mess will feel guilt for the tension and death on the horizon.

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