Istanbul (AFP) – Thousands are expected to take part in an ‘anti-terror’ demonstration in Istanbul Sunday, in a rally that will gauge the level of popular support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-month-old offensive against Kurdish militants.
The “one voice against terrorism” demonstration in Yenikapi Square, which will be addressed by Erdogan, is expected to dwarf a similar rally held in the capital Ankara Thursday in which some protesters railed against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the president has likened to the extremist Islamic State Group.
While participants in the Ankara gathering were under strict orders to leave all political slogans and emblems at home, the Istanbul rally is shaping up as a warm-up for Turkey’s second general election campaign in under six months.
Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) is seeking to reverse the losses it sustained in the last election in June, which stripped it of its governing majority, forcing it into coalition talks that ended in failure, triggering another vote on November 1.
Analysts have linked the military’s air strikes and ground operations against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq and southeast Turkey, which shattered a two-year ceasefire, to the AKP’s electoral setback.
Erdogan launched the offensive after a suicide bombing in the town of Suruc on the border with Syria in late July that was blamed on the Islamic State group — an arch-foe of the PKK and its US-backed Syrian affiliate.
While declaring his fight to be with all “terrorists”, Erdogan’s battle is seen as being chiefly with the liberal, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which took votes from the AKP in June to scoop up 80 seats, denying Erdogan the large majority he had sought to boost the powers of the presidency.
“The battle with terror is a pretext. The aim is revenge for (the) June 7 (election),” Cengiz Candar, a commentator with the online newspaper Radikal, declared.
The government has accused the HDP of being a front for the PKK, allegations the party — which also made a strong showing among non-Kurds — rejects.
While the timing of the offensive against the rebels has raised eyebrows in Turkey and abroad, the magnitude of the PKK’s response has caused widespread anger and dismay.
Over 120 soldiers and police have been killed in PKK bombings and shootings since the escalation began, according to pro-government media. The government for its part claims to have killed over a thousand rebels.
The violence has raised fears that the three-decade-old conflict, which has left around 40,000 people dead since the PKK took up arms in 1984, is back on in earnest.
Writing in the leading independent Hurriyet daily this week, columnist Paul Iddon warned Erdogan against any attempt to undermine the HDP, the first pro-Kurdish party to win seats in parliament.
Doing so, he warned, could “refuel a hitherto declining desire for separation in Turkey’s southeast”.