It has now been one year since the July 15-16 attempted coup in Turkey. As the “Justice and Development” Party (AKP) government plans its lavish commemorations of this anniversary, Turkey’s society is more polarized than ever.
A “justice” protest and march led by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) this week attracted more than a million people. The CHP, its supporters and allies demonstrated against what they described as the “second coup” – AKP President Erdogan’s power grab and consolidation of one-man rule following the attempted military coup.
The size and energy of the protests appear to have caught Mr. Erdogan and the government by surprise. It should not have. Mr. Erdogan’s never-ending purges and states of emergency following the coup attempt have seen close to 200,000 civil servants, police, soldiers, teachers, professors, judges, businesspeople and journalists dismissed and/or imprisoned. Even whispered rumors of links to the Fethullah Gulen movement (the supposed mastermind of the coup attempt) have served to destroy people’s jobs and lives, as terrified bosses and sycophantic courts (led by judges not yet purged) fire and imprison hundreds of thousands with little to no evidence.
The sheer scale and atmosphere of the purges harkens back to China’s Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong mobilized his true believers to lash out at any and all enemies, whether real or just perceived. As Al Monitor columnist Ali Bayramoglu noted this week, “…the July 15 coup attempt became a milestone in deepening and institutionalizing an authoritarian, populist rule, marked by a new government narrative of ‘an integrated and combined threat’ in which Gulenists, leftists, liberals, Kurds and various oppositional quarters are lumped together and portrayed as partners in subversive activities.”
If Mr. Erdogan assumes that non-AKP devout Muslims are Gulenists or Islamist rivals, and Leftists, liberals, Kurds, secularists and others are enemies as well, that probably places a good deal more than half of Turkey’s population in the “terrorist” camp. They are in the “terrorist” camp because this has been the polarizing cultural revolution-style rhetoric that Mr. Erdogan sinks to, referring to CHP demonstrators as “terrorists” and calling Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned Kurdish leader of the Democratic People’s Party (HDP) and former presidential candidate, a “terrorist” at the G20 summit last week. Rather than fellow citizens with a different political perspective, all opponents of Mr. Erdogan’s AKP regime become terrorists – which in turn justifies whatever the government will do to them.
One can only hope this will not further descend into mass killings, such as the 1.5 million murdered during China’s cultural revolution. In the meantime, the constant alarms, threats and government measures to deal with them leave society breathless, unable to coordinate opposition to the regime’s consolidation of power. That is no doubt Mr. Erdogan’s shrewd intent.
The CHP-led protests this week indicate that the opposition may finally be coalescing and organizing effectively, however. Perhaps the Kemalists of the CHP now realize they should never have voted to lift parliamentary immunity of deputies accused of crimes, as one of their top members of parliament -- Enis Berberogu – received a 25-year prison term for leaking information about Turkish Intelligence’s weapons shipments to Islamists in Syria. The CHP thought that only Kurdish HDP deputies would have their immunities lifted, forgetting a simple truth in Turkey: the stripping away of democratic rights and civil liberties of one group (usually the Kurds) ends up stripping these away from everyone.
With support from the HDP and others, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is focusing the growing protests on a list of 10 demands. As the Guardian explains, these “include restoring parliament’s authority, lifting the state of emergency, re-establishing judicial independence and releasing detainees. The effect would be to roll back the sweeping executive powers granted to Erdoğan after he narrowly won last April’s constitutional referendum.” These demands in practice push for the release of Kurdish political prisoners such as Mr. Demirtas from prison.
Turkey will thus either move back towards becoming a country of the rule of law and expanding democracy, which must include its Kurdish citizens, or it will move to some other model more familiar to the region.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press) and co-editor (with Mehmet Gurses) of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East (2014, Palgrave Macmillan).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.