Analysis: Bomb attack could ignite Erdogan's security-themed re-election campaign

  • Bomb attack in Istanbul stirred fears of renewed violence
  • Nov 2015 election campaign was beset by attacks
  • New military operation in northern Syria possible
  • Elections scheduled for June 2023

ANKARA, Nov 15 (Reuters) - A bomb attack in Istanbul evoked memories of violence ahead of tense 2015 elections, and could tee up another security-focused campaign for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and even a Syria military intervention ahead of next year's likely tight vote.

The attack that killed six people on a busy Istanbul street on Sunday has brought national security back on the political agenda. It comes seven months before an election in which Erdogan hopes to extend his 20 years in power despite Turkey's deep economic troubles.

Analysts say the political fallout will largely depend on whether the bombing was an isolated incident or more violence may follow. But either way, it allows Erdogan to shift public focus from an 85% inflation to an issue that has paid political dividends in the past.

Back in 2015, a series of attacks by Islamic State and Kurdish militants in the run up to a November vote made Erdogan's security-themed campaign resonate with voters, leading to a comfortable win by his Islamist-rooted AK Party.

With Turkey quick to accuse Syria-based Kurdish militants for the latest attack, analysts say Erdogan may now press for another cross-border campaign into northern Syria after three such incursions since 2016.

Raising that possibility, a senior Turkish official told Reuters on Tuesday that Turkey would pursue targets in Syria after completing operations against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, another target of Turkish operations.

But in a surprise to some observers, the groups accused by Ankara of the attack - the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, YPG - have denied any role, raising questions on social media and elsewhere about the official line.

Underlining tensions in a polarised country, Devlet Bahceli, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader upon whom Erdogan depends for a governing majority, has criticised those he said were claiming "the government did the attack on Istiklal Avenue due to the upcoming election", calling them "spies that walk among us".

He did not name anyone.

In May, Erdogan said another military operation in northern Syria was on the cards but he had dialled down the rhetoric after Moscow and Washington - which both have forces on the ground in Syria - opposed the idea publicly.

"The government is likely to adopt a hawkish stance and boost counter-terrorism campaigns, potentially including more cross-border operations in Iraq and Syria," Emre Peker, a Europe director at Eurasia Group, said in an analysis of the situation.

Were Sunday's attack followed by more, Peker expected outcomes including a rapid escalation of "counter-terrorism operations, particularly against the PKK and the YPG". Erdogan would likely enjoy a boost from nationalist and conservative voters, he said.

DISTRACTION FROM ECONOMIC CRISIS

The PKK, designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has been waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The YPG, espousing the same ideology as the PKK, has established control over swathes of northern Syria since war began there in 2011.

But while Turkey views the YPG as a national security threat, the United States has partnered with the group while fighting Islamic State in Syria - a major cause of tension between the NATO allies.

Denying any role in Sunday's bombing, the PKK said the attack indicated "the beginning of a dark plan" and urged "all Turkish democracy forces and the public" to recognise that.

The YPG called the incident "a play created by Erdogan and (the) AKP government", saying he was trying "to find an excuse in order to obtain international approval" for a new incursion into Kurdish-led areas of Syria.

Police have detained and named a suspect identified as a Syrian national, saying she had confessed to being trained by Kurdish militants in Syria and entered Turkey through the Syrian town of Afrin.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Turkey assessed the order to have been issued from Kobani in northern Syria - one of several towns identified by pro-government media earlier this year as potential targets of a new incursion.

But a Turkish official has also said the possibility of Islamic State being responsible was not entirely disregarded.

Erdogan, 68, first came to power as head of the AK Party in 2002, becoming prime minister and later president and ruling Turkey with ever greater powers. He survived an attempted military coup in 2016.

One of his closest brushes with electoral defeat came in June 2015 when his party failed to win a majority. That was followed by a breakdown in a ceasefire between the PKK and the government, prompting some of their worst clashes.

In a November re-run - following that spate of violence and two major Islamic State bomb attacks - AK Party won comfortably.

Erdogan's focus on security could distract from a grinding economic crisis going into next year's election.

Inflation has been running at its highest in 24 years, straining households and sapping earnings, while the Turkish lira is at record lows. Analysts say Erdogan is pursuing unsustainable monetary easing in an effort to lower borrowing costs to stoke exports, investment, and employment.

But an October poll showed Erdogan's approval rating had risen since about August. Pollsters credited this to foreign policy successes, such as his role brokering Ukraine's grain export deal, and also fiscal stimulus.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Tomasz Janowski

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.