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15th July has been declared an annual holiday called Democracy and National Unity Day – two attributes Turkey desperately needs, but shows no signs of at the moment. The events of the past year show that the failed coup was also a failed opportunity.

The Turkish Coup Attempt: one year on

15th July, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

On 15th July, Turkey marked the one-year anniversary of the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his elected government. The events during and leading up the commemoration showed exactly what Turkey looks like today. On one side, hundreds of thousands of people gathered to listen to President Erdogan’s passionate and emotive speeches on avenging those who gave their lives defending the nation and punishing those who betrayed it. On the other, hundreds of thousands of people attended the anti-government rally that took place at the end of a 280-mile justice march organised by opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The immediate aftermath of the coup attempt showed that there are two Turkeys – and one year later, this is more evident than ever.

One year ago, Turkey’s government had a choice: it could support and encourage the post-coup solidarity and popular opposition to military rule, or it could support and encourage society’s traditional divisions, and use them to its advantage. The government chose the latter. The emotions that ran high at the time could have been used productively; instead, they were used for political gains. As a consequence, 15th July saw the celebration of a Turkey that is going in the opposite direction of the consolidated democracy it was once envisioned as – and the religious and emotional focus of Erdogan’s speeches is proof of this.

The path chosen by President Erdogan’s government for his country was clear soon after the coup attempt. Following a few short days that fuelled hopes of national unity and solidarity, a quest to punish those considered responsible for the coup attempt was begun. Exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen was deemed the mastermind behind the plot to militarily overthrow the government, and his alleged supporters were the declared targets of the wave of purges and arrests that ensued. The government’s crackdown has since been broadened to include dissidents, journalists and human rights activists, and has so far led to the dismissal of more than 150,000 state employees and the arrest of around 50,000 people. Turkey is now the country with the most imprisoned journalists, and on the Friday before the commemoration 7,000 state employees were dismissed, among which were police officers and academics.

As further proof of his commitment to the path chosen, during the commemoration, the Turkish president announced that he wanted to extend the state of emergency for another three months, and pledged to support the reintroduction of the death penalty if approved by the parliament – and since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds a majority of seats, approval will not be difficult to obtain. Given the loose definition given to the term “coup plotters”, however, President Erdogan has essentially promised more violence against what could easily be a significant proportion of his own people – and has done so in a country that a year ago publicly opposed the return of their violent past.

The government’s slide towards tyranny has undoubtedly accelerated in the past year, but Turkey’s backsliding on democratic reform is not a trend that began with the coup attempt. By the 2014 elections, Erdogan and his once-progressive AKP were already ruling the country with very little respect for judicial independence, accountability, media freedom and the rule of law. In power since 2002, the AKP have gradually consolidated their control over the country over the years, protecting themselves from corruption allegations and scandals in the process. In true dictatorial fashion, as far as Erdogan and his government have long been concerned, either you are with the Turkish government or you are against it – there is no in-between. What has become increasingly clear in the last year, however, is that the Turkish president has no intention of getting the other half of the population on his side – he is, instead, portraying them as bad examples of Turks and Muslims, and ensuring that their votes against him will not matter. Erdogan sees his people as either “terrorists” or “martyrs”, and plans to consolidate nothing else but his own power. His strategy is to play on the religious, ethnic and class-based divisions that have polarised Turkish society, but also to portray his crackdown as fair punishment against betrayal and a firm but just defence against the country’s enemies.

What is unsettling is that this strategy is not entirely disengaged from reality. The Turkish people seem evenly divided on how the country should move forward, and Erdogan’s millions of supporters share the belief that secularism has undermined the country’s founding principles. On the day of the failed coup commemoration, alongside using religion to justify his actions, Erdogan accused the justice marchers of supporting terrorism, either blindly unaware of or purposefully ignoring how his own call for violence against the alleged coup plotters sounded. The use of words and phrases such as “unbelievers” and “rip the heads off” traitors is uncomfortably familiar; what is even more worrying, however, is that it was met with cheers and chants of “we want execution” from the crowd he was addressing.

The other side of the coin is a Turkey that has witnessed, experienced or is aware of only the negative consequences of the government’s post-coup attempt choices. This is the Turkey that joined Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), in a march against the injustices committed by the government, and this is the Turkey that needs an alternative at the next elections. The justice march and the rally that followed were an important sign that a different vision on Turkey’s present and for Turkey’s future still exist in the country – and this vision needs to be fuelled and maintained, otherwise the country’s backwards-moving will become increasingly dangerous.

With the perks offered by European Union membership increasingly distant, near-authoritarian rule, coupled with a balancing act between the West and the East, are seen as the best way forward for Erdogan and those close to him. Externally, Turkey is a vital ally to the United States when it comes to Syria, and an essential one to the European Union when it comes to the refugee issue – which is exactly why the West have decided to turn a blind eye to the government’s human rights abuses. Domestically, with the next presidential and parliamentary elections taking place no later than 2019, Erdogan cannot afford to loosen his grip on power. The state of emergency could, therefore, be extended indefinitely – or at least until there is certainty that the opposition no longer represents a valid threat.

When Erdogan called the coup attempt “a gift from God” that would usher in “a new Turkey”, he was not wrong. Regardless of whether it was staged or not, the failed coup brought him and those close to him the Turkey they wanted and needed. Moreover, with no thorough investigation to shed light on exactly what happened on the night of the alleged coup attempt, the government has created its own narrative of the events – one that conveniently portrays them as both the victims of betrayal, and the saviours of the republic.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, warned that reinstating the death penalty will end any hope of Turkey joining the European Union. This is an empty declaration, however, particularly since Turkey’s membership negotiations have been frozen for years. While threats have a limited impact and the West cannot work against an elected leader that has won a referendum to increase his power, what it can do is work around him. This can translate itself into a reiteration of support for human rights and democratic principles, but also, and more importantly, into ensuring that there will be a Turkish opposition to speak of at the next elections. What is needed now is a strong leader who can unite the fractured opposition – and external support for him leading up to the next elections.

15thJuly has been declared an annual holiday called Democracy and National Unity Day – two attributes Turkey desperately needs, but shows no signs of at the moment. The events of the past year show that the failed coup was also a failed opportunity: the rebuilding of democracy in Turkey was sacrificed in favour of widespread purges, but also the removal of virtually all checks and balances from the governing process. The government’s response to the alleged coup attempt could have been solidarity and progress – instead it was violence and division. All that is left now is to ensure that the two Turkeys do not drift further apart – and that they have a fair and equal say at the 2019 elections.


Image: Turkish citizens protest the coup attempt (Source: Pivix/Wikipedia)


About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.