Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Playing politics with the Uludere airstrike

The Turkish airstrike on 28th December which killed 35 young fuel smugglers – rather than the PKK militants it was aimed at – has caused political shockwaves which show no sign of disappearing. Instead, the country’s main parties are increasingly engaged in a political mud-slinging match over the tragedy.

The governing AKP was initially caught on the back foot by the botched raid and the outpouring of public criticism it caused, particularly (and unsurprisingly) in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. The government has since sought to regain the initiative, promising compensation to those killed and ordering a full enquiry. Prime Minister Erdoğan has met the Chief of the General Staff, although he has “angrily dismissed” accusations that the raid was conducted on the basis of faulty intelligence from the National Intelligence Organisation.

The hunt for culprits has also led to questions about the changing nature of the establishment. As Zaman columnist Ihsan Dagi points out (h/t to Yigal Schleifer), the AKP’s hard-fought victory to control the state (i.e. the military, intelligence, and judicial establishment) rather than just the government is something of a poisoned chalice: “No longer can it hide behind the excuse that it cannot control the ‘reactionary forces within the state.’” L’etat, c’est AKP. If government appointees within the establishment make errors, the government itself bears ultimate responsibility.

The other main parties seem to have sensed an opportunity. The CHP, which was roundly trounced in Kurdish areas in last year’s election, sent its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to meet victims’ families, and insisted that it will ensure that those responsible will be punished. The party has proposed its own level of compensation and has said that the incident was a “breaking point” in the government’s relationship with local Kurds. The subtext – vote CHP! – is cynical, although the point may well be valid. Underlining the mood of one-upmanship, the CHP also accused the Interior Ministry of cancelling a helicopter booked for party officials to visit the area.

The pro-Kurdish BDP has been in the thick of the rather unsightly fray. The party, which critics accuse of being a PKK front, has been a prominent sight in the explosion of public anger in the southeast. BDP officials have joined the mourners, and a BDP-organised rally in Istanbul saw clashes between youths and riot police. The BDP’s leader Selahattin Demirtas has compared Erdoğan to Syria’s Bashar Assad, whom the Prime Minister accused of having lost legitimacy because he has the blood of his people on his hands.

The BDP and AKP have since engaged in a war of words over the airstrike. Erdoğan has blasted those who view the incident through a lens of ethnicity, declaring with his usual restraint that “[t]hose who classify deaths as Kurdish and Turkish are those following the path of the devil”. Demirtaş responded in kind, saying that the PM’s statements “have been as painful as the massacre”.

The PKK itself has also exploited the tragedy. The coffins of the teenage smugglers were draped in PKK flags, although over at The Istanbulian Emre Kızılkaya notes that the victims were from a pro-government tribe. Emre suggests that this may indicate that they really were PKK affiliates, although I’d argue that it just shows the PKK’s willingness and skill in exploiting these events. The militants have also called for a general uprising. It is unlikely that Kurdish anger will remain focused long enough for this to come to pass, although expect more bricks and tear gas on the streets of Diyarbakır for a few weeks.

The real significance of this story, beyond the tragedy of the deaths themselves, is what it reveals about the confrontational nature of Turkish politics. The sober process of investigation, regret, and redress has been overshadowed by aggressive competition – accusations thrown around, politicians racing to outdo each other in their condemnation, verbal tirades on subjects which become more and more tangential to the matter at hand or pulling political stunts

Of course cynical, advantage-seeking politicians are not a purely Turkish disease by any means. Nor is vigorous discussion on this issue something to be avoided. But there is something particularly unedifying about the spectacle of party leaders squabbling over the deaths of three dozen young men. 

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