ISTANBUL - Outside the Istanbul Military Museum, patriotic music blared from huge speakers on a truck bedecked with Turkey’s national flag. A handful of tourists shuffled into the museum, but few locals heading to Istanbul’s upscale and politically liberal Nisantasi district — a neighborhood peppered with designer label stores — paid much attention to the martial clamor, except to shield their ears.
On Thursday, the troubled country marked the 92nd anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan bragged at a reception the night before, with just days to go before Sunday’s crucial parliamentary polls, that Turkey is a united country.
“We have eliminated this picture in which the republic is on one side and the public is on the other side because a public exists all together,” he said.
His statement is at odds with the political platforms for an election Sunday that will determine not only the next government but also likely the country’s entire near future. For opposition politicians the November 1 election will amount to a test of Turkey’s democracy — for the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Sunday’s vote will decide whether the “enemies of the state” are to triumph.
Turkey’s fractures and divisions between Islamists and Westerners, its Anatolian-dominated culture and Kurdish and Armenian heritages, have been on ominous display.
Opposition leaders draw a gloomy picture. “Today, Turkey is living one of the deepest crises in the history of the republic,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the centrist Republican People's Party (CHP) said in a radio interview.
And the divisions are at their sharpest over the twin suicide bombing in Ankara in October at a peace rally that left 102 people dead. Dispute continues to rage over who was behind the blast and what impact it will have at polling stations.
Pollsters say thirty percent of voters appear to have accepted claims by President Erdogan and his Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, that the bombing was the conspiratorial handiwork of the Islamic State terror group, militant Kurdish separatists and the intelligence services of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in neighboring Syria — an unlikely confederacy, albeit a convenient one for Erdogan.
According to the AKP, Turkey is being held hostage by terror, its “Turkishness" is under threat and a vote Sunday for any other party would be a vote for terrorism.
That storyline may be working on AKP voters who sat out the June polls or defected to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), say some pollsters.
The increasingly bellicose tone on the hustings of the MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, is possibly testimony to the effectiveness of Erdogan’s narrative about the Ankara bombing — the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s modern history.
“When Turkish nationalists come to power, the bombers, assassins and assailants will look for a place to hide,” Bahceli thundered at a midweek MHP campaign rally.
The MHP is expected to reap between 14 and 16 percent of the vote.
That two percent difference could determine whether the AKP is able to form a single-party government once again, something it was denied in the June elections, when Erdogan’s Islamists dramatically lost their parliamentary majority, partly thanks to a strong performance by the pro-Kurdish and liberal People’s Democratic Party, or HDP.
Pollsters are predicting voter turnout on November 1 is likely to be much higher than the June 7 elections and could be as high 86 percent of the electorate. One major factor determining the result will be whether the AKP is able to reclaim electoral districts it lost in June by margins of just hundreds or a few thousand votes in 38 key provinces out of 81.
While prosecutors have firmly blamed the October 10 Ankara bombing on the Islamic State, claiming a cell based in southern Turkey was responsible for the operation on orders from jihadist commanders in Syria, there is a widespread speculation among Turks, both pro and anti-AKP, that there has to be more to the bomb plot and that even shadowier forces were at work.
This fits into the Turkish tendency to identify complex manipulation and conspiratorial forces as the drivers of what befalls their country — a penchant shaped by a dark modern history that has seen the country’s intelligence services, as well as foreign powers, involved in violent secret machinations over Turkey’s politics.
While Erdogan has fed from this conspiracy mindset for his narrative, his opponents, too, have had no hesitation in pushing a different story of intrigue, one pinpointing the secret author of the attack as the government itself. Turkish social media is full of such claims, fueled by the angry rhetoric of HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who within hours of the blast had no hesitation in naming the AKP as the secret manipulator.
“There are some, and not only the pro-Kurdish opposition party but even ordinary people, who suspect the state’s — in other words, the Justice and Development Party government’s — involvement in the bombing,” according to Barcin Yinanc, a columnist for the Hurriyet newspaper.
Polling data suggests a third of the country subscribes to that view.