Attack deepens divisions as Turkey faces bitter election

2015-10-12 08:50
The father, centre, of Sarigul Tuylu, 35, a woman that was killed in bombing attacks in Ankara, Turkey, cries over her coffin during her funeral in Istanbul. (Cagdas Erdogan, AP)

The father, centre, of Sarigul Tuylu, 35, a woman that was killed in bombing attacks in Ankara, Turkey, cries over her coffin during her funeral in Istanbul. (Cagdas Erdogan, AP)

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Ankara - Aside from a carefully worded statement urging unity, President Tayyip Erdogan was unusually quiet after Turkey's worst ever bomb attack.

Modern Turkey's most divisive leader has in the past had no hesitation in dominating the airwaves at times of crisis, rallying his fervent supporters and lambasting his opponents in equal measure in defence of the state.

But the double suicide bombing that killed up to 128 people at a rally by pro-Kurdish and leftist activists on Saturday, three weeks before an election, has sparked criticism of Erdogan's administration just as Turkey is already beset by conflict in its Kurdish southeast and seemingly paralysed by the growing spill-over from Syria's war.

For those loyal to Erdogan and the Islamist-rooted AK Party he founded, the bombings marked another murky conspiracy by foreign-backed forces to undermine the Turkish state and damage its standing in the Middle East.

For his opponents, including the pro-Kurdish opposition party apparently targeted in the blasts, his administration has blood on its hands - at best for intelligence failings, at worst for complicity in a bid to stir up nationalist sentiment.

"Once the initial shock has subsided, the attack appears likely to exacerbate the already deep cleavages in a dangerously divided society," said Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of London-based Teneo Intelligence.

Who is responsible?

Investigations are focusing on Islamic State, senior security sources told Reuters, although Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in the hours after the blasts that any of a plethora of radical groups could have been responsible, from Islamist or Kurdish factions to far-leftists.

Islamic State has openly claimed past attacks, sometimes opportunistically taking responsibility for actions it did not direct. There has been no such claim for the Ankara bombing, and sceptics see the group as a convenient scapegoat.

Those close to Erdogan see the bombing as a calculated bid to further weaken him at a time when his strategy in Syria of seeking President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow and curbing Kurdish territorial gains has been left in disarray by Russia's intervention in support of Assad.

"This attack was carried out by those who want to leave Turkey and Erdogan, along with the AKP, out of the equation in the Middle East. Intelligence organisations influential in the region must have given support," one senior government official told Reuters, without elaborating.

Erdogan calls for solidarity

Erdogan's opponents have similarly elaborate conspiracy theories.

"Many in Turkey will suspect that pro-government clandestine forces may be somewhat complicit ... as part of a 'strategy of tension' aimed at scaring voters into supporting Erdogan's law-and-order, security-first platform," Teneo's Piccoli said.

In a statement via his office on Saturday, Erdogan condemned the bombing and called for "solidarity and determination as the most meaningful response to terror". Officials rejected any suggestion he was not in control.

"It's meaningless to hold the AKP, Erdogan or the government responsible for what has happened," one senior AKP official said.

"Erdogan and the government are aware of their responsibility. They are focused on doing what is necessary. The rest is not important."

Psychological impact

The psychological impact of such a devastating attack in the heart of the capital is clear.

"How can such a big bomb explode in the middle of this country's capital city?" said Selin, a 32-year old teacher attending an anti-government protest in Ankara on Sunday.

"The intelligence agency, the police, and security officials must be too busy finding and jailing people who send critical tweets against Erdogan," she said.

The editor-in-chief of the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman was detained on Friday on charges of insulting Erdogan on Twitter.

Even some AKP sympathisers may question their loyalty after the Ankara attacks, said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and head of the Istanbul-based EDAM think-tank.

"The government is ultimately responsible for the protection of its citizens, and that responsibility cannot be pushed away. There is a security and intelligence failure here. That you can't hide," he told Reuters.

Read more on:    tayyip erdogan  |  turkey  |  security

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