Friday, 27 May 2011

The PKK's election campaign of violence

Yesterday's bomb attack in Istanbul, which wounded seven people, has so far gone unclaimed. But the government has pointed the finger at the PKK, and in the absence of more concrete evidence, it seems likely that the Kurdish militants were indeed responsible. The group has promised attacks in the run-up to the general election, according to officials, and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan threatened "a great war" if the government did not open serious negotiations by June 15, three days after the election.

Today another (anonymous) attack took place in  Diyarbakır, where a percussion bomb damaged the local AKP election offices. In mid-May an ambush on a police unit at an election rally in Kastamonu, in northern Turkey, was claimed by the PKK. And according to police, a captured PKK member has confessed that the group has planned a wave of attacks and assassinations in the aftermath of the polls.

Clearly, relying on 'confessions' by militants has its limitations. But there is certainly a sense of rising tension connected to the Kurdish issue around the election. Despite the reversal of the ban on several pro-Kurdish candidates - which had triggered a wave of Kurdish protests in late April - unrest in the south-east is still a serious threat.

The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is either a pro-Kurdish party or the political wing of the PKK depending on who you believe, may lose out from the uptick in violence. Despite the fraying of the ceasefire between the government and the PKK, and the ongoing popularity of the PKK (the funeral of a militant recently drew 30,000 mourners, apparently), the appetite for more conflict amongst ordinary Kurds is probably low. More bloodshed and rioting in the south-east might shore up BDP support in some quarters but will erode it in many others, probably handing those votes to the AKP.

The PKK leadership is aware that more chaos will damage the Kurdish party. So why the campaign of election-related violence? It may be a bad gamble - that the violence will provoke a backlash from the government which will unite Kurds behind BDP candidates. This supposes, of course, that Ocalan actually believes in working through the ballot box.

It may in fact be just the opposite: the PKK may anticipate that terror attacks, before and after the elections, will marginalise the BDP, reducing the channels through which ordinary Kurds can legitimately express their frustrations and encouraging Kurds back onto the street and into the mountains. If the campaign provokes a harsh state response, destroying the government's patchy and hesitant attempt to extend an olive branch, all the better. Or it may be a genuine attempt to push the government into negotiations, although Ocalan is smart enough to know that this isn't the way to achieve that.

This may be reading too much into it, of course. The PKK has a habit of using violence for violence's sake, and their recent activities could simply be an attempt to foment chaos and make peaceful politics as difficult as possible. Either way, the attacks are unlikely to stop before elections are over.

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