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Fear of escalation in Turkey

The latest street battles in Turkey reveal just how divided its society is. Some observers are drawing comparisons to the time before the coup of 1980.

In a country with an average age of around 30, most Turks weren't even born at the time of the coup d'etat of 1980. Even so, it casts a long shadow. The trauma of bloody clashes on the streets of Turkey and the subsequent mass arrests, torture and killings by the military still lingers. Turks refer to it by date - and "September 12" stands for chaos, violence and martial law.

Turkey's recent clashes have been reopening this national wound. Last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent in riot police to crack down on peaceful protests against a construction project in Istanbul's Gezi Park. The funeral service (12.03.2014) for Berkin Elvan, the boy who was injured then and died this week after several months in a coma, has now also turned violent. Just days before the local elections on March 30, Erdogan and his opponents are irreconcilable.

A divided society

"Turkey is experiencing unprecedented polarization," columnist Nagehan Alci wrote in "Milliyet" newspaper in early March. The only consolation, he said, was that no firearms had been used yet: "Otherwise the polarization is on the same scale as before September 12."

Soldiers and a watercannon are in a street (Foto: (Burhan Ozbilici/ddp images/AP Photo)

The memories of the 1980 coup d'etat are still alive

The situation continues to worsen. Less than two weeks after Alci's piece was published, a 22-year-old was shot dead in Istanbul on the sidelines of the clashes that followed the Elvan funeral. The extreme left-wing group DHKP-C claimed responsibility.

Critics blame Erdogan

The death of the 22-year-old came as a shock. After this month's riots, several parties called on their supporters for calm and restraint. Appeals are circulating in Turkish Internet forums urging people to stop taking part in demonstrations until further notice, because of the danger that provocateurs could cause more bloodshed. "A human life is worth more than any ideology," one appeal said.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Foto: Sergey Guneev/RIA Novosti)

Erdogan is deliberately increasing the tensions in Turkey, according to some observers

Government critics give Recep Tayyip Erdogan most of the blame for the growing tensions. The prime minister has not spoken a word of condolence over Elvan's death, instead complaining about damage to the offices of his party, the AKP. He described protesters as "vandals."

Opposition politicians Muslim Sari said that a prime minister who categorized victims of violence into "my dead, your dead" was no longer fit to govern. Erdogan is constantly increasing the divisions in Turkish society, commentator Hasan Cemal wrote in an article for internet portal T24. If Erdogan goes on like this, he would "set fire" to Turkey, Cemal said.

AKP wants to win back wavering followers

Ankara political scientist Fethi Acikel said Erdogan and the AKP have an interest in increasing tensions before the election on March 30. Many AKP voters were uneasy because of allegations of corruption against the government and the prime minister's increasingly authoritarian style, Acikel told DW. The party aims to win back these voters. "The AKP wants to raise tensions and present itself as the victim of attacks to rally its followers," he said.

Riot police and a watercannon in the streets of istanbul (Foto: Murad Sezer/REUTERS)

Parties call on their supporters for calm and restrain

But Acikel said he did not want to make a direct comparison with the events of 1980. The broader situations are too different, he said.

Journalist Aydin Engin, who was forced to flee to Germany following the coup, also said the situations then and now are not fully comparable. Before the coup, extremists on the left and right were engaged in deadly clashes almost daily, while today's divisions largely take place in the political arena, Engin said.

"The danger today is that political chaos could arise," Engin said. Unlike in the period before 1980, the opposing sides turn to arms only in exceptional cases today: "Back then, both sides were armed. This is not the case today, at least not yet."

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