ISTANBUL: More than 100,000 people attended an “anti-terrorism” rally in Istanbul Sunday to back President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s offensive against Kurdish rebels, six weeks before snap elections he hopes will boost his powers.
Despite being organised by a coalition of NGOs, the giant gathering on Yenikapi Square on the shores of the Marmara Sea resembled an election rally, with Erdogan vowing in a barnstorming speech to pursue the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) “to the terrorists’ last redoubt”.
The separatists have killed dozens of police and soldiers in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since the collapse of a two-year ceasefire in July, with Ankara striking back with almost daily air raids on their bases on both sides of the border with Iraq.
“There is no question of making the slightest concession to terrorism,” Erdogan told the crowd, a sea of red Turkish flags.
“Martyrs never die, the homeland cannot be divided,” read a headbands worn by many of the demonstrators, referring to the slain security force members.
Erdogan’s two-month-old offensive against the PKK, who have responded with a ferocity unseen since the 1990s, is viewed with suspicion by his critics.
They accuse him of using a suicide bombing in the southeastern town of Suruc that was blamed on Islamic State (IS) jihadists as a pretext for reigniting the three-decade-long conflict for electoral gain.
Erdogan has tarred the PKK and IS with the same brush of extremism, but devoted much more firepower to airstrikes on PKK’s bases along Turkey’s border with Iraq than to air raids against the Kurds’ jihadist foes in Syria.
– ‘No PKK in parliament’ –
On Thursday, an “anti-terrorism” rally in the capital Ankara drew more than 10,000 people.
While some demonstrators in Ankara were circumspect about Erdogan’s motives, those in Istanbul expressed fervent support for him and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP).
“We will support Erdogan to the end. We are behind him because he defends our flag and our nation,” Gunel Yildiz, a 43-year-old textile industry worker, who carried a giant Turkish flag, told AFP.
The AKP is looking to the upcoming election to reverse the losses it sustained in an inconclusive election in June, which stripped it of its governing majority, forcing it into coalition talks that ended in failure.
The big winner of that vote was the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which took votes from the AKP to win seats in parliament for the first time.
A combative Erdogan, who had been counting on the AKP winning a large majority in order to amend the constitution to boost his powers, laid into the HDP, without expressly naming it.
Alluding to the government’s accusation that the HDP is a front for the PKK — allegations the party vehemently denies — he urged voters to vote AKP “so that peace returns to Turkey”.
“November 1 is drawing close. We expect a final effort from you,” he said to chants from the crowd of “We don’t want the PKK in parliament!”
Speaking before him, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made overtures to the country’s 20-million-strong Kurdish minority.
“Turks and Kurds are brothers, there is no difference, those who want to divide us will not succeed.”
While the timing of Erdogan’s offensive against the PKK has raised eyebrows in Turkey and abroad, the rebels’ bloody response has caused widespread anger.
More than 120 soldiers and police have been killed in bomb and shooting attacks since the ceasefire was broken, according to pro-government media. The government for its part claims to have killed over a thousand rebels.
Over 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK took up arms in 1984 demanding an independent state for Kurds. Since then the group has narrowed its demands to greater autonomy and cultural rights.