ANKARA, Turkey – Five months after Turkey held its general election in June, voters will go at it again Sunday with the country once more holding its breath.
Now, as then, the election takes place in a charged atmosphere crackling with discord and distrust. And now, as then, the outcome of the vote will serve as a verdict on the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a political titan who has been in power 13 years.
But this time, the stakes are higher, with the specter of civil war and fears over the future of Turkish democracy shadowing the nation.
Opinion polls suggest that none of Turkey’s four main parties — including Erdogan’s center-right Justice and Development Party, known by the Turkish abbreviation AKP — will win a decisive majority. The political uncertainty has led to a deterioration within the country since June.
The absence of a stable government sent a softening economy into the doldrums, with the Turkish lira hovering just above an all-time low. A fragile cease-fire between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists collapsed, and the ensuing violence has claimed hundreds of lives in recent months.
And, as Syria continued to implode next door, Islamic State militants started to hit targets within Turkey, including an Oct. 10 double bombing at a leftist rally here in the Turkish capital that killed 102 people and was the worst terrorist attack in the country’s modern history.
Analysts point to hardening divisions between Turkey’s feuding camps in the buildup to the election.
In September, inflamed by rising nationalist and anti-Kurdish sentiment, pro-government mobs attacked the offices of a leading liberal newspaper as well as those of the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, a leftist, pro-Kurdish political party. On Wednesday, authorities swept into the Istanbul headquarters of a major media conglomerate at odds with Erdogan and pulled the plug on one of its news channels mid-broadcast.
“This is the highest and most acute level of polarization we have seen since the 1970s,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. That previous instability, Ulgen said, led to a coup in 1980 and a military junta whose imprint on Turkish politics remains.
Erdogan’s critics blame him for the current political crisis, which they argue was spurred by his unwillingness to accept the results of the June election. Erdogan had hoped for an AKP supermajority in parliament so he could revise the country’s constitution and consolidate his rule through an executive presidency.
That plan seemed doomed after the party suffered its worst electoral showing in more than a decade, forcing Erdogan — who served 11 years as prime minister before his election as president last year — to remain in a post that is supposed to be ceremonial and apolitical. When Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a party leader hand-picked by Erdogan, was unable to form a coalition government, the president pushed for a new vote.
“After he couldn’t have power for himself, Erdogan chose the path of chaos,” said Senal Sarihan, a parliamentary candidate in Ankara from the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, Turkey’s second-biggest party. “He forced the country to go to a second round of elections.”
The bombing in Ankara this month dramatized not only Turkey’s increasingly dangerous security situation but also the extent to which the country has become divided.
The targeted peace rally on Oct. 10 had been organized by a committee of trade unions and civil society groups, as well as the HDP. Authorities identified the Islamic State as the main culprit, linking the bombing to a similar attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc in July that killed 32 youth activists.
But organizers of the demonstration, as well as charismatic HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, accused Erdogan and the government of enabling the massacre, either through sheer incompetence or even tacit support for radical Islamist forces within the country.
“This shows us how far they will go to stop and silence the democratic opposition in Turkey,” said Samut Karabulut, deputy chairman of Hakleveri, a nationwide leftist organization that participated in the rally.
“Did Erdogan put the bombs there? No, he did not,” Sarihan said. “But he is responsible for the explosion.”
AKP officials vociferously reject such claims.
“Look at me, look at my face. Do I have the face of someone who would support [the Islamic State]?” Davutoglu asked when confronted Monday at a televised town hall event. The prime minister has a closely trimmed mustache.
Last week, Turkish security forces raided alleged Islamic State cells in cities near the Syrian border and have rounded up more than 200 suspected extremists since March.
But the government has spent as much, if not more, energy in its battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Kurdish militant group deemed a terrorist organization by Washington and Ankara. Starting in July, Turkish jets conducted airstrikes on PKK positions in Turkey and northern Iraq, and security forces are in the midst of a protracted counterinsurgency in the country’s Kurdish-majority areas in the southeast.
The clashes have had an impact on the election campaign. Erdogan and his allies repeatedly pointed to the HDP as an extension of the PKK, even in the aftermath of the Ankara bombing.
The HDP has its origins in the Kurdish nationalist movement and has close ties to elements of the PKK. But it won about 14 percent of the June vote — depriving the ruling party of its parliamentary majority — by appealing to an array of leftists, ethnic minorities and others chafing against Erdogan’s perceived authoritarianism and his party’s conspicuous religious nationalism.
“It is a total lie,” said Gunay Kubilay, a senior HDP leader. “The PKK is an armed organization, while we are a party of peace and democracy.”
Experts say the clashes of the past few months serve the agendas of those who want to weaken the HDP and its young, popular leader Demirtas, who was likened by local media to a Kurdish Barack Obama. That may include Erdogan and the AKP, eager to pick up nationalist votes, but also the hard-core members of the PKK leadership, who may be opposed to their struggle entering Turkey’s political mainstream.
“How do you make Demirtas irrelevant? You make violence once more the language of Kurdish politics,” said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That tactic doesn’t seem to have worked. The HDP is expected to pick up at least the same number of votes it did in June and sweep the Kurdish areas that in previous election years provided a good deal of support for Erdogan’s AKP.
There are fears, though, of potential electoral fraud and voter suppression. All three opposition parties will deploy thousands of volunteer monitors on Sunday.
If the election goes as predicted, the most likely outcome could be an improbable grand coalition between the AKP and CHP, two traditional rivals. But coalition talks hinge on Erdogan’s acquiescence — and should they fail, the stage would be set for another election.
Deniz Zeyrek, the Ankara bureau chief for Hurriyet, Turkey’s biggest daily, believes a third election “would be a disaster for the ruling party” and could lead to the defection of key figures.
Zeyrek’s paper has come under particular scrutiny from the government in the past two years. Its offices in Istanbul were stormed by a crowd of nationalists last month for its supposedly anti-Erdogan coverage. Zeyrek said he receives daily death threats from right-wing nationalists.
But he remains optimistic. “I trust our nation,” he said. “We’ve had many bad things happen in the past, but in the end we always find our way.”