Was attack on opposition leader a response to Erdoğan reconciliation attempt?

The succession of events that took place in Ankara, Istanbul and Antalya on Sunday provided a concrete sign of what to expect in the coming days in Turkish politics.

First came the morning speech in Antalya by Devlet Bahçeli, whose far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) partners the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the ruling coalition known as the People’s Alliance.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had posted conciliatory messages on Twitter on Thursday, saying the March 31 local election was over and it was time to put political differences aside. The country must focus on the existential problems facing it by creating what he called a unified “Turkey alliance” encompassing the entire nation, Erdoğan said.

Bahçeli responded by saying such a nationwide alliance was impossible. “Our alliance is with the people, our alliance is with our brothers from the AKP. I don’t know what our president meant by a ‘Turkey alliance’,” he said.

The MHP leader said opposition parties had taken advantage of the political situation, and that his party intended to work for the survival of the country and to prevent attempts to sabotage the People’s Alliance – his pact with Erdoğan’s AKP.

In contrast to the president’s signal that he would be willing to finally concede defeat in the Istanbul mayoral election, Bahçeli pressed the Supreme Election Council to accept the AKP’s appeal and rerun the vote in Istanbul, which the candidate for the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) won by a slim margin.

The nationalist leader continued the polarising rhetoric that had preceded the election by equating the election results in Istanbul with the matter of survival the ruling coalition had framed the local elections as, and said the electoral board would betray those who were killed resisting the July 2016 coup attempt if it ruled in favour of the opposition.

At the same time, while Ekrem İmamoğlu, the new CHP Istanbul mayor, was preparing to hold a rally to mark the start of his administration, a dangerous incident was brewing in Ankara’s Çubuk district.

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was attending the funeral of Yener Kırıkçı, one of four Turkish soldiers killed on Friday during an operation against Kurdish militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on Turkey’s border with Iraq.

Kılıçdaroğlu was just one of a host of politicians and ministers in attendance, including Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the General Staff Yaşar Güler and the Ankara chief of police.

But it was the CHP leader who was targeted by a crowd that had evidently taken to heart months of rhetoric from the ruling party accusing the opposition party of siding with the PKK, a group that has been locked in battle with Turkish armed forces since launching an armed separatist campaign in 1984.

The crowd hurled abuse at Kılıçdaroğlu before physically assaulting him as his bodyguards tried to lead him out of danger. They then surrounded the house he was forced to take refuge in until he was rescued by an armoured vehicle.

Many people in the crowd were seen making the “grey wolf” hand gesture associated with nationalists in Turkey and particularly the MHP.

This attack, together with Bahçeli’s statements earlier in the day, made it clear it would not be so easy for Erdoğan to turn his back on the aggressive rhetoric he had used throughout the local election campaign.

At the same time, it overshadowed İmamoğlu’s rally, and gave the news channels a reason to switch their coverage from the large, enthusiastic crowds in Istanbul to the angry mob in Ankara.

The incident made it abundantly clear that the MHP and circles close to Bahçeli are having none of Erdoğan’s talk of building bridges with the opposition, and intend to continue pursuing an aggressive and polarising line.

Thus, while early statements from AKP and other parties’ politicians condemned the violence and called for a stop to the dangerous rhetoric that likely inspired it, the MHP for a long time, remained silent.

Finally, in a message that contained neither well wishes for the CHP leader nor condemnation of the attack, Bahçeli expressed his regret that the incident had taken place but said that party leaders should take care researching the places they intended to visit.

The MHP leader then referred to the March 31 vote tallies in the neighbourhood of Çubuk where the attack took place, noting the CHP’s alliance had lost with just 9.83 percent of the vote against the People’s Alliance’s 73.3 percent.

“What business did you have in that neighbourhood”, Bahçeli said. “Why couldn’t you just go two days later to the family’s home to pay your respects there? … On the televisions there are images of an old man throwing a punch (at Kılıçdaroğlu). But what must Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have done to make him throw that punch? Kılıçdaroğlu ought to take a holiday”.

Turkey Bar Association head Metin Feyzioğlu described the incident as an attempted lynching, while Levent Gök, a CHP deputy who was with the party leader throughout the ordeal, said it had been an organised affair and carried out by a crowd bussed to the funeral.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who last year made a statement demanding the barring of CHP politicians from soldiers’ funerals, faced widespread criticism on social media for laying the foundations for the attack on Kılıçdaroğlu. Calls for his resignation took several of the top trending topic spots on Turkish Twitter.

But in fact, Bahçeli’s comments that morning show the very real possibility that it was staged to warn Erdoğan off from ending the People’s Alliance and choosing to reconcile with the opposition.

Likewise, Bahçeli’s description of the Istanbul rerun as a “matter of survival”, his victim blaming after the attack on Kılıçdaroğlu, and the efforts to present the CHP as responsible for soldiers killed by the PKK, show that the MHP is not willing to give up its divisive rhetoric.

The Supreme Election Council announced it would start its examination of the AKP and MHP’s appeals on Monday. If the council rejects the request for a rerun, the MHP and Bahçeli are believed to be willing to further escalate the verbal attacks against the CHP.

And if the election is cancelled, we can expect to see more tension and more attacks designed to raise voters’ fears until the vote is held again on June 2. This was precisely what took place in 2015, when the AKP lost national elections in June. Between then and the snap elections held on Nov. 1, there was a period of heightened security threats and vicious political rhetoric.

Erdoğan remained silent for a day after the attack, finally publishing tweets condemning “every type of violence and terror” and expressing his regret that the “protest against Kılıçdaroğlu” had descended into violence.

The nation is still waiting to see a firmer sign of how Erdoğan will react to the attack. However, with the president boxed in when it comes to domestic, foreign and economic policies, there is a good possibility he will use it as an opportunity to break up the People’s Alliance and attempt to form a broader national coalition.