The politics of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoan and his party are no mystery. They lie in the party’s very name, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). By justice, the AKP and its leaders do not really mean fairness, openness or equal treatment for all, but reshaping Turkey in the image of their conservative and pious support base. The results, as we have seen in the year following the attempted coup on 15th July 2016, are deeply troubling.
Together with Turkish journalist and academic Emre Caliskan, I recently authored a book entitled The New Turkey and Its Discontents. As part of our research, we interviewed many of Turkey’s political figures. We found that when we asked a question we were rarely given a direct answer. Instead we were taken on a long meandering narrative about injustice and suppression. The AKP politicians or sympathisers we spoke to were no exception.
Central to the narrative peddled by Erdoan and the AKP is Turkey’s history of military interventions (1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997) to safeguard the vision of its modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. From the AKP’s perspective, Ataturk’s establishment of a staunchly secular republic in 1923 led to the hegemony of a secular elite, which curtailed outward expressions of Islamic identity in an effort to “westernise” and “civilise” the country. Founding members of the AKP witnessed a military intervention take place in 1997, when the army staged a behind the scenes coup against the openly Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party, where as members Erdoan and other leading members of the AKP had their first foray into politics.
Since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has, it believes, faced plotting from every corner. In 2008 a case was brought to Turkey’s constitutional court to close the party for anti-secular activities, which just narrowly failed (the AKP was fined instead). There were the Ergenekon and Balyoz “deep state” investigations from 2008 onwards, alleging a clandestine alliance between military factions and civil society networks to oust the AKP government (convictions were later overturned after irregularities in the cases were found). Even the 2013 Gezi Park protests were likened to a coup attempt.
It has been one year since a faction within the military loyal not to the state, but to Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic preacher based in Pennsylvania, tried to overthrow the Turkish government. 249 Turks were killed resisting.
Erdoan called the attempt a gift from God, an opportunity for will of the true Turkish people, those pious and conservative, to be realised. In other words, for his form of justice to be realised.
A state of emergency was declared and hundreds of thousands of academics, journalists, ordinary Turks were either arrested or removed from their posts. Erdoan and the AKP then spearheaded a referendum on constitutional amendments with the aim of giving Turkey’s president even more power. It won, but with only 51 per cent of the vote in an election marred by irregularities and an environment detrimental to the opposition’s ability to campaign.
What about the 49 per cent of Turks who didn’t vote to give Erdoan more power? Many of them will argue that even before the coup attempt, AKP rule did not make Turkey a more just or democratic society. Instead there was greater corruption, repression, intolerance. In short: authoritarianism. And just as they thought it could not get any worse came the putsch and subsequent purge. Greater power for Erdoan will leave them feeling more anxious still.
The arrests—whether they be of public sector workers, human rights activists, teachers, academics, soldiers or police officers—were already commonplace. But now they happen so often no one is shocked. When someone is arrested, there is little confidence that they really had anything to do with the coup.
The political opposition is being targeted. Leading members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) such as Selahattin Demirtas remain behind bars under politically motivated and trumped up charges related to terrorism—in reality an attempt to crush the pro-Kurdish and liberal oriented party. Outraged by the arrest of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Enis Berberoglu, party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu went on a 250-mile march from Ankara to Istanbul demanding “adalet,” the Turkish word for justice.
For now, as Turkey hosts week-long commemorations remembering the coup, the lofty goal of justice seems as far away as ever.