Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is illiberal and autocratic. He has little respect for the rule of law or the autonomy of institutions. He was content to allow lawyers and police officials who were alleged supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen to pursue, beginning in 2008, and eventually imprison military and other so-called ‘deep state’ functionaries on largely fabricated charges. In the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the corruption investigations launched against members of his inner circle in December of the same year – again by Gulen-linked lawyers and police officials – he embarked on a campaign to purge the police, judiciary and other public institutions of allegedly Gulenist officials and to take over or close down Gulenist businesses; he intimidated, took over or closed down more secular media outlets; and pressured the country’s universities and intellectuals. He even marginalised leading members of his own party. In the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt – a ‘gift from God’ in his own words – this crackdown has been sped up and intensified. His declaration of a three-month ‘state of emergency’ will extend the purge to anyone deemed a threat to his grip on power. Already, over fifty thousand public servants have been suspended from their official duties, and ten thousand have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the failed coup attempt. Almost one-third of the upper ranks of the officer corps are among this number. The military will surely now suffer the impact of Erdogan’s wrath. This is a witch hunt, and the label ‘Gulenist’ is about to end the careers and even freedoms of thousands of individuals, many of them innocent of anything that would raise eyebrows in a functioning liberal democracy.
However, Erdogan is acting as the adored leader of the over fifty percent of Turks who elected him to his office, and the similar number that vote for his Justice and Development Party (JDP). Materially, many of them have prospered considerably under Erdogan. Perhaps more importantly, their devout, conservative way of life is no longer subjected to official scorn or neglect. Religious education has been expanded, new mosques have been built, headscarved and bearded individuals are now employed in public office, and much of the media reflects their worldview. They see Erdogan as one of their own, and applaud him in his mission to wrench their country from the hands of a privileged, westernised, and unrepresentative metropolitan elite, and to turn the state into one in which the Anatolian masses feel they have a stake, to which they belong, and from which they can benefit. These people are not liberals. They are generally indifferent to and have little use for the freedoms that a liberal order bestows, are ignorant and suspicious of the west, and resentful of the secular minority that before Erdogan held their country in its grasp. This is payback time, and many are feeling triumphalist.
Turkey was not a liberal democracy in the days before the JDP was first elected to power in late 2002. Indeed, its forerunner as the representative of political Islam in the country, the Welfare Party, had been banned, as had all Islamic parties before it. Erdogan himself, as mayor of Istanbul, served a spell in prison. As recently as 2008, the then secular Constitutional Court failed by just one vote to shut down the ruling JDP for its ‘anti-secular’ activities, and in 2007 the Turkish General Staff responded to the prospective elevation to the presidency of one of the JDP’s leading members, Abdullah Gul, by issuing a so-called ‘e-memorandum’ threatening JDP rule. Secular dominance in Turkey was characterised by frequent military interventions in the country’s domestic politics, often supported by the secular elite. The 1980 coup led to over half a million detentions, a quarter of a million arrests, the banning of all political parties and imprisonment of their political leaderships, and scores of executions and unexplained disappearances. Under secular rule, all Kurdish parties were shut down and the use of the Kurdish language was restricted. The war conducted against Kurdish separatists was vicious and frequently illegal. Indeed, one of the first acts of the newly elected JDP in 2002 was to lift the decades-old state of emergency in the Kurdish regions. Turkey’s institutions were largely the preserve of the country’s westernised minority. Few Turkish ‘liberals’ lamented the exclusion of the headscarved and bearded from public office, or bothered themselves overmuch with the fate of Turkey’s Kurds.
Turkey has always been a divided society, but the boot is now on the other foot. Even so, Erdogan has not, yet, closed down political parties or, yet, executed anyone. Even the intensified war currently being waged against separatist Kurds in the country’s southeast comes in the wake of an attempted resolution to the conflict and against a backdrop of recognition that a Kurdish population exists in Turkey. These are not Turkey’s darkest days ever, at least not for the country’s conservative masses. The country’s secular and westernised minority, however, are facing increasing exclusion and marginalisation, and such liberal and lifestyle freedoms as the country has enjoyed look set to be further curtailed. Paradoxically, the country’s real or imagined Gulenists, no less devout in their own way than Erdogan’s JDP supporters, look likely to fare worse still. Few liberals, and few too of Erdogan’s fans, will be greatly concerned at that. Both liberals and Gulenists are deemed to represent a threat to Erdogan’s rule. Should the violent, bearded, and hard Islamist mobs that appeared among the crowds resisting the coup and celebrating its defeat imagine that the victory over the plotters is exclusively theirs, they too could yet find themselves in Erdogan’s line of fire as he relentlessly indulges his lust for power. We are not witnessing the end of a liberal democracy that never truly existed in Turkey. Rather we are witnessing a dramatic moment in an ongoing assault against anyone who might be regarded as a challenge to Erdogan’s autocratic rule.
Image: Anti-coup protesters after 15 July 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt in Bağcılar, İstanbul, Turkey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.