ISTANBUL: A week ahead of Turkey’s second election in five months, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party is working overtime in its quest to claw back its parliamentary majority, in a climate of tension fuelled by the Ankara attacks and the Kurdish conflict.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), called on supporters at a campaign rally Sunday to defy the opinion polls that predict a replay on November 1 of the inconclusive June vote.
The country is more polarised than ever, and on edge after the October 10 bombings in the heart of the capital, the worst in the country’s modern history.
Adding to the jitters, security forces are hunting four suspected members of the Islamic State group, including a German woman, who have crossed from Syria, media reports say.
The four belong to the same cell behind the Ankara carnage and are feared to be plotting a major attack “such as hijacking a plane or a vessel or detonating suicide bombs in a crowded location,” the Anatolia news agency said Saturday.
Although several thousand AKP faithful turned out in a sea of Turkish and party flags, numbers were far lower than at previous rallies.
The June result stunned the AKP, which after 13 years dominating the political scene won barely 40 percent of the vote and lost its absolute control of parliament, partly due to a surprisingly strong performance by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
It was also a major personal blow for Erdogan, dashing his hopes — at least temporarily — of expanding his role into a powerful US-style executive presidency.
The Turkish strongman, accused by critics of becoming increasingly autocratic and divisive, took aim at Turkey’s “enemies” in a thinly veiled attack on the HDP and outlawed Kurdish rebels.
“November 1 is important. You must give the right response to those who want to divide us, tear us into pieces.”
Since late July, fierce fighting has erupted between Turkish security forces and fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), shattering a fragile peace process launched three years ago.
Underscoring the tensions even thousands of kilometres (miles) away, 12 people were injured in a brawl between Turks and ethnic Kurds as hundreds gathered at the embassy in Tokyo to vote.
Fear is also stalking the streets of Turkey after the double suicide bombing blamed on IS militants against a pro-Kurdish peace rally in Ankara that killed 102 people.
It followed another deadly attack in a mainly Kurdish town on the Syrian border in July that thrust the NATO member into a “war on terrorism” against both IS extremists and Kurdish rebels.
“They (the AKP) have brought Turkey to brink of civil war, to the point where people now hate each other,” HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas said at a youth meeting on Sunday.
On a lighter note, there was confusion among millions of Turks Sunday as the authorities delayed moving the clocks back one hour until November 8, unlike the rest of Europe.
Many smartphones and computers however automatically changed, prompting the hashtag “#whattimeisit” to trend on Twitter.
Latest opinion polls give the AKP between 40 and 43 percent of the vote but under half of the 550 seats in parliament — a result which would again force it to share power or call yet another election.
Erdogan is criss-crossing the country to deliver his message that he is the only guarantor of security and unity in Turkey: “It’s me or chaos”.
But the conservative Islamic-rooted AKP, once credited with rebuilding Turkey after years of political instability and a financial crisis, is struggling to cope with the fallout from the war in Syria — including a massive influx of refugees.
Analysts say Turks are weary of elections — Sunday’s vote will be the fourth since March last year — and campaigning has been low-key because of the security fears as well as financial constraints on the smaller parties.
The opposition accused Erdogan of security lapses over the Ankara attack and laid the blame for the resumption of the Kurdish conflict squarely at his door.