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Turkey’s year of turmoil

Posted By on July 21, 2017 @ 12:18

It has been one year since the failed coup in Turkey, and questions about the country’s future still abound.

Last year’s attempted coup was nothing if not dramatic. Mutinous F-16 fighters bombed the Turkish parliament, and 249 people lost their lives. But the putschists failed to detain President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who then mobilised his own supporters and sealed the coup’s fate. If the coup had not been stymied within the first 48 hours, Turkey probably would have fallen into a devastating and violent civil war, the consequences of which would have extended well beyond its borders.

Today, it is difficult to find anyone in Turkey who doubts that the coup was instigated by forces loyal to the enigmatic Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. All of the available evidence seems to support this conclusion. When Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power democratically in 2002, they joined forces with the Gülenists to roll back Turkey’s old authoritarian establishment, and to shore up Turkish democracy with a bid to join the European Union.

But the Gülenists had deeper ambitions—and a tradition of secrecy born in an era of military dictatorship, when many religious activities in Turkey were forced underground. After 2002, the Gülenists’ infiltration of the police and the judiciary was well known, and they used their position to stage show trials and imprison their adversaries [1]. Less well known was the extent to which they had also infiltrated the Air Force and the Gendarmerie.

In 2013, the AKP and the Gülenists parted ways, and then began waging a silent civil war. Given that ongoing standoff, it is not unreasonable to conclude that last year’s failed coup was a dramatic effort by Gülenists to take power before they could be purged from the military.

The Turkish state, which should never have been so thoroughly infiltrated by subversive elements in the first place, undoubtedly needs to cleanse itself. But if Turkey’s democracy is to have a future, the process of removing internal threats must adhere to the rule of law and human rights, and have broad support within Turkish society.

Unfortunately, some elements of Erdoğan’s response to last year’s coup attempt raise serious concerns. Of the 100,000 people who have been detained, more than 50,000 have been formally arrested. These include at least 169 generals and admirals, 7,000 colonels and lower-ranking officers, 8,800 police officers, 24 provincial governors, 2,400 members of the judiciary, and 31,000 other suspects.

At the same time, countless people have been dismissed from their jobs, with no prospects for the future. Numerous independent media outlets have been shuttered as well, and, in just the past few weeks, prominent human-rights advocates—including the director of Amnesty International in Turkey—have been arrested [2] for supporting ‘terrorism’, a charge that defies belief.

In the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkish society united behind Erdoğan. But the government’s actions since then have increasingly polarised the country [3]. In its effort to purge Turkey’s state of security threats, the government has cast its net ever wider. And in April, it pushed through constitutional changes in a referendum that was strongly opposed by almost half the country [4], including most young, urban voters. When the changes take effect, Turkey’s political system will be transformed into one in which the president wields highly concentrated power.

This is a departure from the first decade of AKP rule, when Turkey modernised its economy, developed its democratic institutions, and moved towards granting its Kurdish citizens full civil rights. Turkey’s impressive progress during this period strengthened its prospects for EU admission.

But now the future is more uncertain. If the Turkish government does not start respecting human rights and the rule of law by early next year, what remains of its EU accession bid could become unsalvageable [5]. Turkey’s membership chances already took a hit from the failed peace and reunification talks with Cyprus—a failure for which Turkey alone cannot be blamed. And so much rhetorical abuse has been heaped on the EU that Turkey has made itself politically toxic in many key EU member states, not least Germany.

Without the political anchor provided by the EU accession process, Turkey’s modernisation process could go into reverse. And if that happens, the country could be dragged steadily down into the Middle East quagmire. Turkey is already admirably struggling to accommodate millions of refugees from the conflict in Syria, in which Turkish forces are now participants; and it is a constant target of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State. Moreover, Erdoğan has now decided to insert Turkey into the ongoing diplomatic contretemps between Qatar and other Gulf states.

The future of Turkey is of profound importance. Turkey straddles Europe and the Middle East. It will soon have a population of 100 million, and has impressive economic potential. The history of Europe can’t be written without Turkey any more than Turkey’s future can be extricated from Europe’s. If it is put on a credible path towards EU participation, it can help to bridge divides in culture and tradition that could otherwise threaten all of Europe.

But Turkey’s internal political wars are now jeopardising this future. The aftermath of the coup attempt could have been healing. Instead, it has so far been divisive. It is still not too late to take another path—but time is running out.

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URLs in this post:

[1] stage show trials and imprison their adversaries: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/dani-rodrik-says-that-turkey-s-prime-minister-has-only-himself-to-blame-for-the-country-s-current-political-turmoil

[2] arrested: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/07/director-of-amnesty-international-turkey-must-be-released-from-incommunicado-detention/

[3] increasingly polarised the country: https://www.project-syndicate.org/onpoint/turkey-post-coup-environment

[4] strongly opposed by almost half the country: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/turkey-referendum-erdogan-pyrrhic-victory-by-soli-ozel-2017-04

[5] could become unsalvageable: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/turkey-erdogan-referendum-eu-by-javier-solana-2017-03

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