In other circumstances, Turkey would have been the foreign country most often making headlines in the last 12 months. As it is, the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, the ongoing civil war in Syria and Iraq, the madness of Kim Jong-un and the Machiavellian machinations of the Kremlin have drawn attention elsewhere. The consequence is that President Recep Erdogan has been able to gain for himself ever more dictator-like powers – at the expense of both democracy and human rights.
Once upon a time Mr Erdogan was something of a revolutionary himself, standing against the dogmatic secularisation – and establishment elites – which had dominated Turkish politics since the days of Ataturk. Using the democratic institutions the old elites claimed to represent, he won power for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2004. In the years since, he has done whatever it takes to maintain his position. He has turned Turkish politics on its head in the process.
Throughout his reign – first as Prime Minister for a decade, then as President – Mr Erdogan has given little quarter to his critics. He has used the judiciary, increasingly stuffed with pliable apparatchiks, to bring opponents to book, claiming always that his manoeuvres are backed by the laws of the land. In the first two years of his presidency more than 1,800 prosecutions were launched against people who were deemed to have insulted him. Independent media outlets have been a particular target.
It was against the backdrop of his efforts to make the office of president all-powerful that elements within the military launched an attempted takeover last summer. This weekend Erdogan and his supporters have been celebrating the coup’s startling failure.
Undoubtedly the attempt by disgruntled officers to unseat Erdogan was as dramatic in its unravelling as it was surprising in its initiation. During a night of confusion, the government at first appeared to have been overthrown, before unarmed supporters of the President – aided notably by police recruits – forced the soldiers to lay down their arms. Some 250 people were killed during the violence.
Erdogan’s response in the coup’s aftermath has been to redouble the purging of dissent. In the three months immediately after the failed military action, an estimated 70,000 individuals were taken into custody – not only soldiers, but civil servants, police officers, lawyers and academics. Many took no active part in the coup but were victims of the regime’s paranoia about enemies within any part of the state apparatus. As the anniversary of the attempted overthrow approached, a further 7,000 military and other state-employed personnel were removed from their posts, bringing the total dismissals during the last year to 150,000. Government decrees and trumped-up charges have replaced due process. It is all rather Soviet.
The President, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been emboldened by the revolt’s defeat and the popular opposition which put a stop to it. He and his supporters present the event as a triumph of democracy over military interference and, more broadly, as the moment of Turkey’s renaissance; the time when the country’s people defended their rights – and significantly their faith – against the final, desperate flailing of those who wished to reinstate the failed, unelected, secular elites of the past. The fact that there remain many in Turkish society who do not support Erdogan’s rule is irrelevant in this propaganda-backed narrative.
Western governments, most with their own troubles and all concentrating on the diplomatic challenges thrown up by the unpredictable behaviour of the present incumbent of the White House, appear to be conflicted when it comes to events in Turkey. Sympathising with a military coup against a democratically elected regime isn’t a good look (notwithstanding doubts about the fairness of the election in November 2015 which regained the AKP its parliamentary majority). Moreover, Turkey remains a vital strategic ally of America in Syria’s ongoing civil conflict; and of the EU in preventing further mass influxes of refugees.
Still, the failure of European leaders to speak out against Erdogan’s crushing of critical voices is shameful. A referendum in April concentrated even greater authority in his own hands, enfeebling parliament. And it is fear of the consequences, not love of the President, which has quietened opponents. Whatever Erdogan and his backers may say, Turkey is no longer a true democracy and we must not pretend otherwise.