Suruç attack highlights parallels with 2015 elections

On June 14, as parliamentary candidate İbrahim Halil Yıldız from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) was visiting shopkeepers in Turkey's southeastern town of Suruç, arguments between Yıldız’s campaign and local merchants turned violent and resulted in the death of 4 and injury of 9 people.

The incident has led many to question whether the AKP plans to stir up internal turmoil in order to reverse current polling numbers, which indicate that the party will lose control of Parliament in the upcoming June 24 parliamentary and presidential elections. The attack in Suruç has created concern for many political observers, who see in it parallels with the last parliamentary elections held in Turkey 3 years ago.

The June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections were historic for Turkey. For the first time in the history of the republic, a pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), surpassed the 10-percent parliamentary threshold and entered Turkish Parliament. And for the first time since the AKP had come to power in 2002 with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at helm, the AKP lost its majority control of Parliament.

What ensued was a gridlock in Parliament without any successful coalition governments and a breakdown in a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an armed group which has been at war in Turkey for over three decades. After months of political uncertainty and terrorist attacks, another round of elections was held in November 2015, at which point the AKP regained control of Parliament. The of Suruç was an important juncture during this period of turmoil.

In the month following the elections, youth from across Turkey gathered in Suruç. As members of the Socialist Youth Organizations Federation, they were awaiting permission to cross the Syrian border in order to provide humanitarian aid to the city of Kurdish-majority Kobani, which had been under siege from ISIS. On July 21st, they gathered in the garden of the Amara Cultural Center singing folk songs and dancing, when an ISIS suicide bomber infiltrated the group, detonating an explosive.

Thirty-one youth died that day, and 104 people injured. The day after the Suruç Massacre, two police officers residing in a secured boarding house in the nearby district of Ceylanpınar were shot in the head.

While ISIS was considered to be responsible for the Suruç attack, many regarded the Ceylanpınar attack as the PKK’s retaliation for Suruç.

The terror ignited in Suruç escalated with the Ankara train station bombing in October, in which 101 people lost their lives, and set the stage for trench warfare and military curfews in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, which characterized the period leading up to the November elections.

In the aftermath of the Train Station Massacre, Ahmet Davutoğlu—who was prime minister at the time— raised eyebrows for his televised remarks that the AKP had collected polling data before and after the attack indicating an increase in their approval ratings, which were allegedly nearing 43 points. Davutoğlu also sparked debates with the threatening remarks he made in the southeastern city of Van that “if the AKP is voted out, gangs will patrol these areas.”

This week, the lethal campaign clash in Suruç, paired with the release of secret videos of President Erdoğan calling for voter targeting in every district in order to ensure the HDP would stay below the threshold, inevitably brought up parallels with the tumultuous period from June to November 2015.

The government’s response to this week’s Suruç incident targeted both the HDP, and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). President Erdoğan accused the HDP and the PKK of attacking the AKP’s candidate. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu blamed CHP presidential candidate Muharrem İnce for emboldening voters and encouraging them towards violence. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım claimed that authorities had proof that 3 men who died during the attack were PKK members.

The government’s reaction likely indicates fear of losing the upcoming elections, based on current polling numbers. The three most recent polls predict that the HDP will pass the threshold to enter Parliament, opposition parties will gain majority control of Parliament, and the presidential vote will go to a second round run-off between Erdoğan and İnce. It appears that Erdoğan fears a repeat of June 2015.

The opposition’s main concern is that in the lead-up to the June 24 elections, attacks and provocations could increase and spread to other cities, creating security concerns that might dissuade voters from going to the polls. Opposition circles agree on the importance of being cautious, calm, and prepared for the possibility of further provocations.

As the campaign season enters its final week, 35 voting areas stand out for their potential to shift the majority from the AKP and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), to the opposition. In the three largest cities—Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir—small margins could award the opposition the majority of parliamentary seats. Central Anatolian cities could siphon votes from the MHP to the newly created Good (İYİ) Party. In other cities, ranging from Kocaeli in the northwest to Şanlıurfa in the southeast, critical votes could take away 1-2 parliamentary seats from the AKP-MHP coalition and grant parliamentary control to the opposition.

Opposition parties, especially smaller ones such as Good Party and the religiously conservative Felicity Party, could siphon votes from the MHP and the AKP to tilt the scales and gain control of Parliament.

In the week before the election, it is important to be prepared for the AKP and MHP to lash out in response, with more possible provocations like the one in Suruç.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.