A time of mourning.

Photographer: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey Plays Politics With Terrorism

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its modern history on Saturday, when two suspected suicide bombers killed at least 95 people at a peace march organized by Kurdish and left-wing political parties. The government's response: attempt to ban media coverage, obstruct Twitter and smear the victims. 

Acting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu named several possible culprits right after the attack: the militant Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK; left-wing terror organizations; and Islamic State. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the assault as an attack on democracy, equating it with PKK attacks on Turkish security forces. 

One cabinet minister, Veysel Eroglu, even blamed the participants in the peace rally:  

Our people need to be careful of such provocateurs that organize terrorist demonstrations in order to incite discord in social harmony. 

The reality is that nobody yet knows who carried out this act of barbarism -- which, of course, would have been the responsible thing for Turkey's leaders to say. 

This is the third bombing of Kurdish political rallies and civilians in recent months, all of which looked like the handiwork of Islamic State, as Syria's civil war spills across the Turkish border. However, the group, which is usually quick to boast of its atrocities, hasn't claimed responsibility for any of the bombings in Turkey, leaving the situation murky. Conspiracy theories abound. 

The PKK seems a less likely candidate. It responded to Saturday's bombing by announcing a unilateral truce; the government by launching fresh airstrikes against PKK positions. When Kurds and other mourners tried on Sunday to place flowers at the scene of the bombing, they were dispersed by riot police. 

Not surprisingly, anger among Turkey's large Kurdish minority has surged, with many accusing the government of engineering the attack. 

The bombing occurred in the midst of an election campaign, ahead of an unnecessary snap election that Erdogan has set for Nov. 1. He called for the vote after failing to get a majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in June's parliamentary election and discouraging efforts to form a coalition government. The electoral balance was tipped against Erdogan by the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, which won an unprecedented 13 percent of the vote and whose leaders were at Saturday's rally. Erdogan is using every lever in his power to undermine those gains. 

The government has tried to use the war with the PKK, which rekindled after the June result, to discredit the Kurdish political party. It has accused the party's Kurdish legislators of conspiring with terrorists, launched criminal probes against them, and arrested hundreds of party activists. The response to Saturday's carnage was part of this political campaign. 

Erdogan should bear two precedents in mind as he handles the fallout. 

The first is the fate of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose instant fingering of Basque terrorists after the 2004 bomb attacks in Madrid cost him re-election days later. Spaniards saw through his transparent attempt to steer attention away from the possibility that Islamists had carried out the bombing, in which 191 people died. He feared voters would then link the attack to his decision to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. 

Erdogan and his government also risk that Islamic State terrorist attacks connected to Syria might cost votes, amid broad opposition to Turkey's involvement in that country's conflict. The government hasn't been foolish enough to directly accuse the PKK of responsibility, but its obvious efforts to link Kurds to the bombing of Kurds look like cynical campaign politics. 

The second piece of history for Erdogan to recall is the 1980s and '90s, a dark period in Turkey when a war with the PKK raged in the east; a "deep state" with connections to the authorities sponsored the growth of Kurdish Islamist terrorists as a counterbalance (they still exist); media freedoms and the rule of law were suppressed; and the economy languished. 

Erdogan and the AKP claimed to have put all that behind when, after coming to power in 2002, they broke the grip of the generals who had held ultimate power in Turkey ever since the foundation of the Republic in 1923. But as November's vote approaches, the country looks all too much as it did in the bad old days of the '80s and '90s. 

The difference is that Erdogan, once a victim of state repression, is now in charge. He is right that the country's unity and democracy are at risk, yet most of this regression can't be blamed on the PKK. For that, the government must look to its own actions, of which its initial, politicized response to Saturday's tragedy was just the latest example. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net