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Aftermath: Ankara Bombings Leave Turkey More Polarized Than Ever

By and

The terrorist attacks in Ankara have deepened Turkey's political rifts. While President Erdogan is fueling his supporters' hostility to the pro-Kurdish HDP ahead of snap elections, his opponents accuse him of being in cahoots with IS.

The square is emptier than it was a few days ago. But day after day, hour after hour, Sabri Batur maintains his vigil at the entrance to the Forensic Institute in Ankara. He keeps asking doctors if they know what's happened to his wife. None of them have given him an answer.

Over one hundred people died and several hundred others were injured on Oct. 10 when two suicide attackers detonated bombs at a peace rally in the Turkish capital. Forensic pathologists have managed to identify most of the bodies, but no trace of Sabri Batur's wife has been found so far.

Thirty-five-year-old Fatima Batur, a local politician from Alanya in southern Turkey and a mother of two, was among the demonstrators. She was talking to her husband in Alanya on her mobile phone when the first bomb exploded at 10:04 a.m. Sabri Batur heard the blast. Then the line went dead. Bloody TV images of the attack showed the dead and the injured lying on the street. Batur later found out that the wounded were still waiting for ambulances when police arrived and began dousing them with tear gas and beating them with truncheons.

The most deadly terrorist attack in recent Turkish history plunged the country into a state of shock. But after several days of mourning, there is now a growing sense of anger. Many in Turkey who are critical of the government are asking how the state -- with its all-powerful intelligence service -- could have failed to prevent a massacre in the capital. Why was so little police protection provided at the demonstration?

Sabri Batur has been scouring Ankara's hospitals for his wife. He waits in a tent that city authorities set up for relatives of the victims of the attack outside the Forensic Institute. He looks gaunt, his eyes are bloodshot and his tracksuit top is filthy. He explains how Fatima campaigned for women's rights. "Politics were her life," he says." A year ago, she was voted local chairperson of the People's Democratic Party (HDP) in Alanya.

An alliance between Kurdish and left-wing parties, the HDP snagged 13 percent support in the general election in June, thereby ensuring that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its long-held absolute majority. This made it the butt of AKP anger and because the HDP co-organized the demonstration in Ankara, the victims of the terrorist attack can expect little sympathy from the government.

President Erdogan called snap elections on Nov. 1, in the hope that a second vote will rally the public behind him and give the AKP its absolute majority back. But the run-up to the election has seen one of the darkest chapters in its past catch up with Turkey. In the last three months, hundreds of people have died in skirmishes between the Turkish military and Kurdish militants belonging to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Meanwhile, curfews have been introduced in many cities in southeastern Turkey.

It was against this tense background that German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Ankara over the weekend to discuss the refugee crisis with Erdogan. The European Commission has drawn up a draft action plan with Turkey, whereby the country agrees to keep refugees seeking to enter the EU in Turkey, providing them with the right to live in the country legally and stepping up the fight against smuggling networks. In return, Erdogan secured a range of sweeteners he has been after for years, including a relaxation of visa restrictions for Turkish travelers to the Schengen zone in Europe.

Political Meltdown

Terrorist attacks in other cities, like Paris and New York, resulted in a heightened sense of community, at least for a while. But the events of Oct. 10 appear to have deepened divisions in Turkey. The government and the opposition are already accusing one another of responsibility for the tragedy.

After the attacks, mourning and protest marches were staged in a number of Turkish cities. Unions and organizations called for strikes. Students boycotted lectures. But there were also other voices. During a moment of silence for the victims of the Ankara attacks before a football match, nationalist members of the crowd whistled mockingly and shouted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest).

The attacks mark a period of political meltdown in Turkey. Erdogan's response to it has fanned the flames rather than help quell them. The president generally wastes no time voicing his opinions, but he dropped completely out of sight for three days following the attacks. The media was instructed to refrain from showing images of the events, and not a single member of the government attended any of the victims' funerals.

Objective facts play a minor role in this stand-off, as illustrated by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's pronouncement that the attack was likely perpetrated by an alliance between Islamic State (IS) and militants from the PKK, despite the fact the two organizations are arch enemies and currently fighting one another in Syria. The mood is so charged that many AKP supporters are willing to believe him. Last week, Davutoglu alleged the attack had been carried out to prevent the AKP from regaining an absolute majority in the upcoming vote. "We are the real victims," he said.

Investigators' main suspects are members of an IS terror cell based in the town of Adiyaman on the Turkish-Syrian border. Some 34 people died in July in a suicide attack in Suruc, another border town. It was recently revealed that one of the two suspected suicide bombers in Ankara was the brother of the Turkish IS terrorist who perpetrated the attack in Suruc.

This discovery makes the security forces' failure look even more heinous. While Turkish police have detained hundreds of anti-government journalists and demonstrators on suspicion of terrorism in recent years, they were unable to recognize a terror cell in the southeast of the country. This reinforces government mistrust among the section of society which already suspects the president of being in cahoots with IS.

Tactical Turmoil

Government critics accuse Erdogan of deliberately stoking chaos so as to boost the AKP's image ahead of the vote as a party that can restore order in the country. In fact, he's prompting many people to turn to the opposition. Polls indicate the pro-Kurdish HDP will attract at least as much support on Nov. 1 as it did in June. Despite the unrest of recent months, its popularity remains undiminished. According to a survey conducted in mid-October by the Gezici Institute, the AKP is polling at 40.8 percent, while the social democratic CHP is at 27.6 percent, the far-right MHP at 15.8 percent, and the HDP at nearly 13.6 percent.

The pariah of AKP supporters is Selahattin Demirtas, one of the HDP's two chairmen. The party's excellent result in the June election is mainly his doing. Even before the Ankara attacks, to many supporters of the opposition he embodied hopes for a better, more democratic Turkey. Now, his followers are hailing him as a resistance fighter in a hostile state.

A few days after the attacks, Demirtas is expected at a tea-room in Fatih, a traditional and conservative district in Istanbul. He will be meeting relatives of the victims. "Selahattin! Selahattin!"chants the waiting crowd. When he arrives, they cheer him as though he were on the campaign trail. Demirtas is wearing a black suit and tie. Looking like he hasn't shaved properly and with heavy bags under his eyes, he's showing the strain of the last few days. His staff say he's barely slept since the attacks.

"The AKP started out as a people's party, but these days Erdogan is fighting the people out of fear of losing power," says Demirtas in an earlier conversation that takes place at a guesthouse for members of parliament prior to his appearance. "We Kurds are the real enemy of the government, not IS," he says, adding that the president will even risk war to remain in power.

'A Climate of Fear and Loathing'

In the wake of the HDP's strong showing in the June vote, Erdogan has seized every opportunity to undermine the pro-Kurdish party, while pro-government media denounce Kurdish politicians as terrorists. "Erdogan has created a climate of fear and loathing," says Demirtas. In the past four months alone, 140 attacks on HDP offices have been perpetrated. Demirtas' advisers say that IS has issued death threats against him -- as they told the Interior Ministry in August -- and have stepped up his security. One adviser says Turkish nationalists pose another threat. "We take it very seriously," he says.

The streets of Fatih are lined with AKP election posters. The district is a party stronghold. But Demirtas is mobbed by people as he crosses a square towards the tea-room. The same camera teams from Turkey's main broadcaster who paid him no attention only a few months ago are now thronging around him. He travels around Istanbul in a black Mercedes.

Most of the victims of the Ankara attacks were anti-government protesters: Kurds, leftists. Demirtas talks, cries and prays with them, comforting children and generally behaving as though he were president of Turkey. "Not only Kurds died in Ankara, but also Turks, devout Muslims and non-devout Muslims," he says. "We cannot allow ourselves to be torn apart."

The Kurdish politician provides a deliberate contrast to Erdogan. While the president likes to play the part of the manly leader who persecutes dissenters, Demirtas makes a quiet, modest impression. His home is a humble apartment in Diyarbakr, in southeastern Turkey, which he shares with his wife, a teacher, and their two daughters.

Under Erdogan, Turkey has undergone dramatic change, transforming from a crisis-ridden state to a strong regional force and a potential member of the EU. His AKP has modernized the economy, bolstered the rights of minorities and advanced reconciliation with the Kurds. But Erdogan, who became president in the summer of 2014 after 11 years as prime minister, has become increasingly autocratic and authoritarian with every election -- and alienated a growing number of people as a result.

'The State has Blood on its Hands'

In fact, Erdogan and Demirtas share an almost identical biography. They both grew up in working-class families: Erdogan as the son of a poor sea captain in Istanbul's rough Kasimpasa neighborhood, and Demirtas in southeastern Anatolia. They both stand for social groupings that long suffered state repression: Erdogan represents devout Muslims, Demirtas the Kurds. Much like Erdogan in the late 1990s, Demirtas has now identified that the time is ripe for change in Turkish society.

In Istanbul's working-class Zeytinburnu district, hundreds of people have lined up, waiting for the HDP's chairman to put in an appearance. Demirtas shakes every single hand. He's using his visits to the relatives of the Ankara attacks to spread his political message. "Erdogan maintains this attack was an attack on the state," he says. "No. It was an attack on us." Demirtas places himself firmly on the side of civil society, with the government on the other side.

Demirtas no longer believes the authorities are merely inept. "If Erdogan and Davutoglu had the slightest scrap of decency, they would resign after this massacre," he says. "The state has blood on its hands."

Erdogan, he says, has long supported IS in its campaign against the Kurds and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Demirtas also believes the government gives IS free rein in Turkey, despite the Turkish military's occasional strikes against IS facilities in Syria. The Kurdish politician is convinced that forces within Turkish intelligence helped prepare the Ankara attacks, or at the very least, knew they were imminent.

Granted, Turkey's Sunni Muslim leadership long saw IS as the lesser evil in the war against Assad. Jihadists were able to cross unchecked into Syria via Turkey. The border has been almost impossible to cross since summer, but even official crossings into IS-controlled territory were previously open.

According to estimates, around 1,000 and possibly as many as 2,000 Turks are members of the Islamic State. Since 2013, the terrorist militia has managed to build up a network of local supporters, secret bases and medical treatment facilities in Turkey -- with such good contacts to authorities that it was able to secure two-year residence permits for suicide bombers passing through the country.

Jihadists didn't even bother keeping much of a low profile in Turkey. Several IS members who have either fled or been captured have said they underwent military training in Turkey.

Turkey is now facing a worsening conflict between Kurds and Turks, Sunnis and Alevis. And though Selahattin Demirtas might attack the government, he has no desire to widen the gap between ethnicities and confessions.

Change is Inexorable

But the meeting at an HDP office in Istanbul shows what he's up against. Hundreds of party members have crowded into the building's three cramped rooms and corridors shouting "Erdogan! Murderer!" Posters of the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan adorn the walls.

Despite its successful campaign against IS, the PKK continues to be categorized as a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe, and has contributed to the escalation of violence gripping Turkey in recent months. Since July, PKK activists have killed 140 Turkish security forces in attacks. The organization is using violent means in an attempt to force Turkey to concede autonomy to the Kurds in the southeast of the country.

Demirtas rejects the PKK's violence. The cornerstone of his campaign is a pledge to reconcile Turks, Kurds and the rest of society. But he is also aware that many of his party's members are sympathetic to the PKK. His own brother fights with the rebels in the mountains of northern Iraq.

In his speech to the party, Demirtas points out that the PKK called a cease-fire in the aftermath of the Ankara attacks. Turkey, meanwhile, continued to shell its headquarters in northern Iraq. "We must not allow ourselves to be provoked," says Demirtas.

The HDP has canceled a number of major events scheduled for the next few weeks on the grounds it cannot guarantee security. Demirtas is nonetheless doing his best to exude confidence. "Change is inexorable," he insists.

In Ankara, Sabri Batur is still waiting for the results of the latest autopsies. The bodies of some of the victims were so dismembered that they can only be identified by DNA analysis. But eyewitnesses have confirmed that Fatima was standing right next to the spot where the first bomb went off.

Sabri Batur has given up hope of finding his wife alive. But he isn't ready to tell his children that their mother is dead. Almost a week after the attacks, he gets a call from his son, who asks him when she's coming back. "Tomorrow," answers Batur.

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