As one opposition MP noted: ‘Turkey has been wrapped in a cloak of fear and anxiety’. Paranoia as well, he might have added.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have relished the coup attempt one year ago. Not because it failed, but that it gave him the perfect excuse to pursue his ambition to rule in the footsteps of his Ottoman heroes. He wasted no time in staging a kind of coup of his own. He bypassed parliament in declaring a state of emergency – which is still in force – and ruled by decrees. He sacked or jailed tens of thousands of judges, academics, public servants, military officers, journalists and anybody else he perceived as an opponent. He muzzled the media. He rode roughshod over the laws of the land.
Erdogan then decided to ‘legitimise’ his actions by putting it to the people. In April, he won a referendum, albeit narrowly, which did away with the Prime Minister’s job – one he previously had held for 11 years – and diluted parliamentary authority. It gave him what the Economist called ‘untrammelled executive power’. It also allowed him to run for two six-year terms, meaning he could match the reign of Turkey’s first president and greatest hero, Mustafa Ataturk. Even though he fainted at a mosque recently, he has not bothered to appoint a deputy and has already isolated possible rivals within his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Clearly, he sees himself as undisputed leader for the long haul until he’s into his 70s.
Once it was the military which intervened when things got out of hand in Turkey. But Erdogan got rid of suspected top brass and promoted loyalists, just as he has now with the judiciary. If he has a threat, it is from Turkey’s largest opposition group, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Ataturk. Its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, led a 440-km protest march through the summer heat from Ankara to Istanbul to call for ‘adalet’ (justice). It culminated this week in a rally which drew hundreds of thousands of people. It was prompted by not only the emasculation of the judiciary and the paralysed justice system, but also the jailing of a CHP MP for 25 years accused of leaking a video which embarrassed the ever sensitive president. Then there are the usual suspects, a dozen pro-Kurdish MPs, who are also under lock and key.
The prickly Erdogan tends to lash out at critics. He dismissed the protesters as ‘wilful partners in treason against the state’. It was a march for ‘terrorists and their supporters’. In an interview with the German daily Die Zeit, he insisted the Turkish judiciary was independent and that many of those detained, including journalists, faced terrorism charges.
‘It is horrible’, said Kılıçdaroğlu, as quoted by the Guardian. ‘Judges are waiting to hear from the (presidential) palace and they think the harsher the punishment (they hand down), the higher up they will go’. The same report says the opposition and defence lawyers claim that judges are fearful of ordering the release of detainees lest they be investigated themselves. ‘Turkish justice has been slaughtered and left in darkness’, said opposition MP Barış Yarkadaş. ‘The right of citizens to be tried fairly has been eliminated’.
One villain in all this paranoia remains Fethullah Gülen, the exiled preacher whose movement, a vast grassroots network, was accused by Erdogan as being behind the coup attempt. Those detained or sacked have been accused of supporting him. He now lives in the US and Erdogan has demanded his extradition. Thankfully for Gülen, American justice is made of sterner legal protection than what Erdogan’s idea of it is these days.
The big test will be in November 2019 when the next presidential election is due. It will be a duel between the belligerent Erdogan and the mild-mannered, conciliatory 68-year-old Kılıçdaroğlu. The president has the support of the country’s conservative heartland in the countryside while the opposition leader can count on the secular, urban classes. ‘This is a rebirth for us, for our country and our children’, said Kılıçdaroğlu at the end of the march. ‘We will revolt against injustice’.
The chances are there will be even greater injustices by the time the election comes around. Turkey is seeing the steady erosion of democracy as Erdogan’s autocracy evolves. Who knows how many more Turks might be imprisoned or fired by the time 2019 rolls around. As the New York Times noted in an editorial: ‘The trouble with the authoritarian course Erdogan has chosen is that once you start trying to suppress the opposition, you cannot stop’.
Or as one opposition MP noted: ‘Turkey has been wrapped in a cloak of fear and anxiety’. Paranoia as well, he might have added.
FOOTNOTE. Turkey has returned to an area where Erdogan’s Ottoman heroes once ruled – Qatar. It has 2000 soldiers there to help protect the state. When the Saudi-led coalition imposed the blockade Qatar last month, one of the demands was for the Turks to quit. The Turkish leader denounced the demand as ‘disrespectful’. He has ambitions for a natural gas pipeline to be built from Qatar to supply the Turkish market and then on to Europe. But it would mean having to cross Saudi Arabia and Syria, where Erdogan’s name is currently odium.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.