How a Bomb Blast in Ankara Became Politicized Before Election Day

  • Only one quarter of Turks hold Islamic State responsible: poll
  • Government implicates Kurdish militants before Nov. 1 election

Demonstrators hold portraits of people killed by suicide bombings as they attend a commemoration in Ankara, on Oct. 13.

Photographer: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Hours after suicide bombers in Ankara killed 102 demonstrators gathered to urge the Turkish government to make peace with the Kurds, the prime minister said Kurdish terrorists themselves could have been behind the attack.

QuickTake Turkey’s Continental Divide

While evidence later showed that at least one of the bombers was a known Islamic State recruiter, the government has continued to point to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. On Thursday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the PKK, Syrian intelligence and Islamic State all were involved. Two days after the Oct. 10 attack, the government began restricting news about the event, and banned all reporting for five days starting Oct. 14. 

The result: a confused population. Only one in four Turks thinks Islamic State was responsible for the attack, according to a poll published Wednesday by the Gezici company. A plurality of those asked, or 28 percent, said they thought the PKK was responsible, with that figure rising to 42 percent among supporters of the party Erdogan founded.

Guilt by Association

The government’s focus on Kurdish separatists is serving to raise suspicions among the public about the main pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, according to Murat Gezici, chairman of the polling company. The HDP’s success at elections on June 7 stripped the ruling party of its majority in parliament, which had allowed it to rule alone for 12 years. The vote will be repeated on Nov. 1, following unsuccessful negotiations to form a coalition.

"They wanted to bring terrorism to the forefront, discredit the HDP by equating it with the PKK, and then finish it off," Gezici said of the governing party in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "They showed the PKK as the culprit because there’s an election in front of us."

A senior official in the Turkish government, speaking on condition of anonymity on Thursday, rejected allegations that the public was being deliberately misled.

"What we are saying is that there is a tacit coordination, if not a cooperation, between the DHKP-C, the PKK and DAESH," the official said. "They are attacking Turkey to change the political agenda and manipulate the elections. They did it before and they are doing it now."

DHKP-C refers to a leftist group that has carried out terror attacks in Turkey, while DAESH is another name for Islamic State. The pre-election attacks "are serving the interest of the PKK," the official said.

Soldiers Killed

The U.S. and the European Union also classify the PKK as a terrorist group. Its war for autonomy against the Turkish state has led to an estimated 40,000 deaths since 1984. Since July 23, when a truce between the PKK and the government broke down, its members have killed about 150 Turkish soldiers and policemen, mostly in the Kurdish-populated east of the country. In neighboring Syria, Kurdish forces sympathetic to the PKK are fighting Islamic State.

Wrong Group

Turkey isn’t the only country where politicians have been accused of blaming terror on the wrong group for political gain before an election. When bombs struck Madrid three days before a national vote in March 2004, incumbent Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who’d led Spain into a domestically unpopular involvement in the war in Iraq, said there was evidence implicating the Basque separatist group ETA. Nationwide demonstrations demanded the government tell the truth -- an al-Qaeda-linked cell was eventually found to be responsible -- and Aznar’s party was defeated.

There have been no such demonstrations in Turkey. From the day after the attack, Turks were bombarded with news implying that the PKK was responsible. Sabah newspaper ran a front page threat from a PKK commander who said the group would "drown the country in blood." Yeni Safak ran a picture of Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish political party, with the caption: "The provocateur is at work." Yeni Akit cited analysts who called it a "bomb to make the HDP look like victims."

Press Ban

On Oct. 14, four days after the attack, a prosecutor in Ankara imposed a press ban that Cumhuriyet newspaper said was the widest in recent history. It covered reporting on the investigation, commentary on social media, and criticism. The ban was lifted late on Oct. 19, in a two-page statement that confirmed one of the suicide bombers’ identities without noting his affiliation.

That bomber, Yunus Emre Alagoz, had been named by local newspapers in front-page stories about Islamic State radicalization in the eastern town of Adiyaman going back to 2013. Another suicide bomber who killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists, many of them supporters of HDP, in the eastern town of Suruc on July 20 was his younger brother. No group has claimed responsibility for the Ankara attack.

Three increasingly deadly attacks linked to Islamic State since June, including the Ankara bombing, have mostly killed supporters of the HDP.

PKK Links

While Demirtas’s own brother is a fighter for the PKK, he denies that the party has any formal control over the militants, and lashed out against allegations that anyone affiliated with the party would carry out massacres of its own members for political gain.

"AKP members even implied that the HDP bombed its own rallies and killed people to gain sympathy and votes," Demirtas said outside a hospital on the night of the attack. "Did you hear one word condemning ISIS? No."

None of the major polls shows the AK Party winning back its majority at the election on Nov. 1, though most show support for the Kurdish party falling from its 13 percent showing on June 7. It needs 10 percent to take any seats in parliament.

"The government doesn’t want the way in which they’ve turned a blind eye to Islamic State to come to light," Murat Emir, a member of parliament for the main opposition CHP, said in an interview in Ankara on Wednesday. "They’re confusing the situation with the PKK to avoid their own responsibility."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.