Turkey’s Night of the Firebombs

Across Turkey, coordinated attacks took place on September 8 against offices of the HDP – the People’s Democratic Party.

The HDP is not, strictly speaking, a Kurdish party – although that is how it is often described in the media.

It was formed in 2012 when a group of left-leaning political organisations – all with firm pro-Kurdish views – decided to form an electoral coalition. The similarity with Greece’s Syriza would not be unkind.

The HDP holds fairly conventional leftist positions – against nuclear power, for LGBT rights, against discrimination of minorities, for women’s equality.

So why have its offices from Ankara and elsewhere been rampaged and firebombed? Who has decided to let slip the dogs of war against the HDP?

The obvious culprit – obvious, because they arrived with flags – were the Grey Wolves of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But they were not alone.

It is by now clear that other forces are lined up against the HDP, trying once more to link this capacious formation to the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

As the Turkish government of Recip Tayyip Erdoğan has returned the country to war in July against the PKK, the HDP has taken the hit on its chin. It is not, therefore, merely the toxic Grey Wolves who have struck against the HDP. It is also the social forces that back President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

A few hours before the attack on the HDP headquarters, the Turkish air force and Special Forces units struck PKK bases in Avashin, Bazyan, Qandil and Zap – in Iraq.

The attack took place after PKK units ambushed a Turkish military convoy in Dağlıca, killing 15 soldiers. The death of these soldiers provided Erdoğan with the opportunity he needed.

The Turkish troops have now opened a full-scale assault on PKK positions. Retaliations come on both sides, leading Turkey towards the worst period of a conflict that ran between 1984 and 2012, with a lull between 1999 and 2004.

It is difficult to imagine how Turkey or the PKK can walk away from the intensification of this war.

Where does the HDP come into all this? In June’s parliamentary elections, the HDP won 13 percent of the vote. This result denied President Erdoğan the mandate to change the Turkish Constitution.

Why does the AKP want to change the Constitution? One of the main ambitions of the AKP is to abolish the parliament, which is – in its eyes – fractious, and turn the Turkish state over to presidential rule.

The AKP’s demographic advantage in Anatolia allows it to imagine that its candidate – whether Erdoğan or not – would win a presidential election hands down. The HDP gain in June, however, prevented the AKP from securing a two-thirds majority.

It is true that the AKP won such a majority in 2002 and did not, at that time, try to change the constitution. It came to power then hesitantly, its first turn in office. Its standard bearer, Erdoğan, had just extricated himself from a political ban.

He wanted Turkey to enter the European Union for at least two reasons. First, for the economic benefits to Turkey, which was on the threshold of a growth spurt. Second, to guarantee – as membership in the EU would – that the military could not intervene to remove the AKP from power.

This second motivation was the real fear.

Having by now neutered the military and removed all opposition, the AKP has greater ambitions. It wants perpetual rule. One might remember that when the AKP’s ancestor, the Refah Party, won the 1994 mayor’s race in Istanbul, their supporters chanted: “The Other Turkey Has Come to Power.”

Their mayor was Erdoğan. They do not want any road-block to power.

Hung parliament

Since no party could form a government after the failure of coalition talks following the June election, Turkey will go back to the polls in a re-run on November 1.

The antipathy to the HDP is seen, by many, as an attempt to break its image as the party of the Turkish left. It is true that the HDP sits between two stools. Its leadership is eager to put itself forward as Turkey’s Syriza or Podemos.

But there is a strong current in the HDP that is pro-PKK and reveres its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

At its recent rallies, PKK flags and pictures of Öcalan (Apo) are no longer to be seen. Nonetheless, people from the crowd have been known to cry out: “Biji Serok Apo” [“Long live Apo”].

The HDP holds together factions that are pro-ceasefire and pro-PKK, although the former more clearly dominate the leadership. One way, it is thought, to break the HDP’s ability to repeat its June performance has been to paint it in the colours of the PKK. That is precisely why its offices have been firebombed.

Erdoğan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that the PKK had used the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria as a way to cozy up to the West. In fact, Erdoğan’s new war against the PKK has confounded the calculations of the anti-IS coalition.

The PKK, and its Syrian allies, the YPG, have been some of the fiercest fighters against IS in northern Syria and in northern Iraq. But bombings by the Turkish air force have disrupted their supply lines and weakened their ability to fight IS.

The danger is that Erdoğan’s forward policy in Syria has not only upturned the peace process between Turkey and the PKK, but has also drawn the spread of IS northwards.

No good will come in Syria or in Turkey with the renewed war against the PKK, and of course nothing good will come from the attacks on the HDP.

Erdoğan might yet win the election. He might be able to change the constitution. But what will he inherit? A country with many fewer democratic rights, with an opposition that has been weakened to anger, and an insurgency that claimed 40,000 lives – and might yet claim many thousand more.

It is hardly the empire of Mehmed II, Erdoğan’s hero.

This column originally appeared on Al Araby.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).