At around 5pm Istanbul time, I logged onto the front page of the Guardian Australia where there was news of another terror attack in Turkey. This time the scene was a peace rally staged by the left in Ankara. Over ninety dead. As I write, I can hear sirens ring into the distance of this still autumn night.
Perversely, the attack didn’t come as a surprise. Many say it’s been coming since June when the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority and subsequent coalition talks floundered, bringing a new election scheduled for 1 November.
Since July, a three-year ceasefire between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has crumbled. From the government’s perspective, the amping up harms the electoral hopes of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – the electoral force that can deny President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the executive presidency he craves. If the HDP’s popular vote can be driven from 13 per cent to below ten, Erdogan might well get his constitutional executive presidency. With the economy shaky and politics 101 in play, Erdogan is banking on portraying himself as the safe prospect in an upcoming election that will focus on national security.
I took the ferry home from Beyoglu, where there’d been massive demonstrations after news of the attack in Ankara broke. Many were returning home carrying flags and placards. There wasn’t a spare seat on the 1800-capacity ferry, and I stood looking on in an eerie quiet only compromised by the sound of two TVs tuned to the news. Evening ferries are a remarkable barometer of Istanbul’s mood and today, as news poured in from Ankara, I thought of that seemingly archaic notion of the people huddling around a radio as history was made.
On cue, Erdogan appeared and one woman completely lost it, pleading, ‘Get him off, I can’t take it anymore. Turn it off!’ Passengers leapt up and tried to switch off the television, which seemed more difficult than it should be, while a man bolted up from his seat and hurled insults, throwing his hands about furiously, yelling ‘Despicable Erdogan, despicable! Murderer! For how much longer will you sink Turkey!’
People clapped and began chanting, ‘Murderer Erdogan’, and ‘AKP there’s a bill to pay.’ No-one appeared to disagree, at least not openly. Two passengers stuck a placard to the wall: ‘How many more deaths til you get your palace?’
Once the ferry had docked, the chanting continued on the pier. Someone announced a rally later on in the evening and a sit-in for tomorrow. There was chanting in Kurdish and Turkish. I understood only ‘Murderers AKP!’ I passed an old man in a suit. ‘You’re the ones to blame!’ he yelled at demonstrators, but no-one reacted.
Nearby an AKP campaign tent was being torn down. I saw someone running around with a box full of AKP flyers, his face distressed. He flung the box to the ground in rage, kicking and stomping on the flyers. It was the kind of wild, visceral anger that comes from devastation and deep injury. Soon he and the others demonstrators were out of breath – and then they were led away from the scene just as a baffled group of a dozen or so riot police arrived. The police fell into defensive formation, which was odd because no-one was attacking.
The Ankara attack is a deep injury to the Turkish left. Buoyed after the heady days of 2013’s Gezi Park movement and this year’s June election results, they now face a leader determined to cling to power and a distraught public. Meanwhile, the authorities and security forces aren’t trusted to serve the broader public. Reports from Ankara suggest police immediately tear-gassed victims after the bomb blasts and that ambulances were prevented from entering.
These days, the safest place to be seems to be pro-government rallies, while HDP rallies remain unprotected. The frequent target of government rhetoric, the party has borne the brunt of repeated nationalist and Islamist attacks on its branches. ‘Every speech you make causes our people to hate one another,’ HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas directed at Erdogan.
Last night saw the frustrations of recent years – growing political polarisation, creeping authoritarianism and an increasingly fragile economy – turn to exasperation and rage. But even after the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history, I walked home fearing the worst was yet to come.