Istanbul: The double suicide bombing on a peace rally in Ankara has taken the feud between the government and Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party to a new level, widening a dangerous polarisation as Turks head to polls on November 1.
The carnage has put the charismatic leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas on a collision course with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who he accuses of presiding over a “mafia state” responsible for Saturday’s bombings that killed at least 97 people.
Rather than joining forces in solidarity, the HDP and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have exchanged acrimonious accusations as Turkey goes through one of its most explosive periods in years.
The two sides even disagree on Saturday’s death toll, with the HDP saying 128 people were killed and the government sticking to 97.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held talks with the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu but notably extended no such invitation to Demirtas.
Demirtas, the only Turkish politician to rival Erdogan’s rhetorical skills, has toughened his language after the bombing which targeted a peace rally of union, leftist and Kurdish activists.
Many of those killed in the attack - which the government says may have been carried out by Daesh terrorists — were HDP members, including two of its candidates for parliament.
It was the third bombing of a Kurdish-linked political gathering in recent months, after a strike on activists in the border town of Suruc on July 20 that killed 34 people and an attack on an HDP rally in Diyarbakir on June 5 that killed four.
The HDP has accused the government of complicity, or at least negligence, over all the attacks.
“They want to give this message: We can kill anybody who stands against us and cover it up,” Demirtas said on Saturday evening, in a powerful speech that rapidly went viral.
“We are dying every day. We are the ones who die. We are the soldiers, we are the police! We are the Kurds. We are the Turks. We, the children of this poor nation, are the one ones who die. Not you!” he said, addressing the government.
“But we have only one life, and we would sacrifice it a thousand times for our people.”
On Sunday he went further, telling supporters that the November 1 election would be the start of a process to “topple” Erdogan.
Aaron Stein, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said there is “deeply-felt” belief within the HDP’s base that the AKP had supported Daesh in order to oppose Kurds fighting in Syria.
“Demirtas has made repeated accusations which lead many to conclude that a Daesh-style attack in Turkey must have some links to the AKP,” he said.
“This is certainly not true, but it explains the anger,” he added.
The strife is in stark contrast to March this year, when the HDP was working with the government to find a peace deal to end the three-decade rebellion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
But the HDP won more than 13 per cent of the vote in the June 7 election, a strong performance that dashed Erdogan’s hopes of pushing through constitutional reforms to boost his powers.
Turkey will vote again on November 1 in new elections called by Erdogan.
Demirtas has found himself in an increasingly delicate position as the Turkish army presses a relentless campaign against PKK rebels who have responded with deadly attacks on the Turkish security forces.
Demirtas, who seeks to portray himself as the leader of a genuinely Turkish party, has also come under huge pressure to distance himself from the PKK, even as his own elder brother Nurettin is among their ranks in northern Iraq.
Erdogan has made it no secret that he regards his rival as a personal enemy, belittling Demirtas as the “pretty boy” and once saying he would “run to the mountain” if given a chance, referring to the PKK stronghold in Qandil, Iraq.
Stein said Demirtas was a “charismatic politician capable of expanding his party’s political base”.
But he cautioned that because of the party’s perceived dependence on the PKK, the size of his disapproval ratings inside Turkey were still “astronomical in political terms”.