Assault on opposition leader a sign of rising hate in Turkey?

This story has been updated.

Tens of thousands of frustrated people took to Turkey’s streets on Monday to denounce the public attack on Turkey's main opposition leader, which observers say underscores the country’s highly polarised society and rising hate speech in politics.

Early Sunday afternoon, while leaving a military funeral in the capital Ankara, Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu suddenly found himself among an unruly crowd. He was jostled, shoved and punched in the face, as seen in multiple videos and photos of the incident. 

Kılıçdaroğlu’s security team rushed him into his car, which was then pelted by large stones. He was driven to a nearby house, which was quickly surrounded by an angry, stone-throwing mob. Finally, riot police were deployed to support officers at the scene and escort Kılıçdaroğlu away in an armoured vehicle.

"I hope the threat of hate speech that dominates the political rhetoric will now be recognised," former president Abdullah Gül, one of the founders of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said in a tweet soon after the assault.

Some 24 hours later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tweeted about the incident. In recent weeks, Erdoğan and AKP officials have accused the opposition of stealing the Istanbul mayoral election through electoral fraud, while pro-government media outlets denounced the “coup at the ballot box”.

Kati Piri, the European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur, pointed to this kind of language as the root cause. “Outrageous mob attack against opposition leader,” she said in a tweet soon after the incident. “Likely inspired by hate speeches of ruling politicians. This radical polarisation must end. Turkey is so much better than this.”

On Monday, tens of thousands of people took part in CHP-organised rallies in 81 cities across Turkey and urged the interior minister to resign. Turkish press reported on Monday that the attacker Osman Sarigun has been arrested and put in a jail.

The ruling party has faced heavy criticism about the incident on social media. Thousands of users posted tweets requesting the resignation of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu Soylu, with #Soyluİstifa (SoyluResign) trending on Twitter late Sunday.

Following the elections last June, Soylu urged provincial officials not to welcome CHP representatives to military funerals as they had aligned with the HDP.

Turkey’s government sees the HDP as linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency for self-rule on Turkish soil and is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

On Monday, the interior minister condemned the attack on the CHP leader. "It is impossible to accept an incident like that took place in the funeral of a martyr," Soylu said, Turkish news site Sol reported. 

After the incident, Kılıçdaroğlu told a crowd at the CHP’s Ankara headquarters that he would never stop fighting for Turkey’s democracy.

"For the first time, CHP fought for peace and tranquillity to prevail in this country. People from different political backgrounds came together for solidarity and the unity of the country,” said Kılıçdaroğlu, Turkish news site Artı Gerçek reported late Sunday. “They think if we attack Kılıçdaroğlu, he may give up. We will never give up no matter what you do.”

Turkey has a long history of political violence, including assassinations and the hanging of a former prime minister. But no leading politicians had been physically assaulted in public in at least two decades.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) denounced the aggression against the CHP leader in a statement on Twitter. "The governing alliance which is using hate speech and creating tension as polarising the society has caused this attack," HDP said.

On Monday police detained Osman Sarıgün, who is accused of punching Kılıçdaroğlu. Also, five people were providing testimony on the incident, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.