Turkey has long been admired internationally for being a Muslim-majority democracy with an industrious people, strong economy and picturesque geography. Under their First World War hero and founder, Mustafa
Kemal Atatürk, modern Turks obtained full independence in 1923, and later the rule of law, universal literacy, separation of state and religion, equal rights for women and a strategically important NATO membership.
A major ongoing governance problem was the practice of the Turkish military to seize the government, claiming to maintain its concept of Atatürk’s secular state. Several times (including 1960, 1971 and 1980), coups occurred, although each time the military returned the country to democracy.
Governing in the Atatürk tradition in their early years, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) impressed many at home and abroad. Erdoğan was elected mayor of Istanbul (1994), prime minister (2003- 2014) and president (2014). The country’s economy and the well-being of many Turks improved markedly in his first five years as prime minister. Other achievements included temporarily winding down a 30-year conflict with Turkey’s 15-million-strong Kurdish minority, which had cost at least 40,000 lives, and accepting 700,000 refugees from Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.
In recent years, unfortunately, Erdoğan has chosen to undermine Turkey’s democratic institutions in favour of creating an intolerant and corrupt dictatorship. In late 2013, for example, when a corruption scandal broke involving him and his cabinet, no one was charged. Numerous judges, prosecutors and police were quickly reassigned.
The episode also appears to have caused a rupture with devastating consequences today involving Fethullah Gülen, who supported Erdoğan earlier when he was seeking membership in the European Union and further democratization of Turkey. Gülen is now a handy scapegoat and declared a terrorist by Erdoğan.
As of the spring of 2015, 22 Turkish journalists were in jail and more than 60 had been found guilty of defamation of the president. Erdoğan’s government, moreover, seized major electronic and print media in a manner very similar to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Can Dündar, editor of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, was jailed after airing footage showing Turkish intelligence sending weapons to ISIS in Syria. More recently, a total of 95 journalists were detained and 113 news organizations remain closed. Erdoğan has also cracked down on anti-government protesters and deliberately increased tensions with the Kurdish community for presumed partisan political reasons.
In the June 2015 national election, which focused on corruption, the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) won 12 per cent of Turks’ votes and ended the AKP’s previous parliamentary majority. Opposition parties attempted to form a coalition government, but failed, allowing Erdoğan to call another election. In November 2015, he won a near majority, but still lacked enough seats to change the constitution in order to establish a presidency without checks or balances.
Meanwhile, next door in Iraq, the ISIS conflict has killed almost 15,000 civilians and wounded 30,000 others over the previous 18 months, according to a UN report. More than 2.8 million Iraqis remain displaced within their country, including 1.3 million children. In March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared that Christians, Yazidis and Shi’ite Muslims were suffering genocide at the hands of ISIS.
Erdoğan appears to have assisted ISIS earlier in various ways, including providing a logistical, economic and political base in Turkey. An estimated 25,000 foreign combatants joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria by travelling through Turkey. During 2015, ISIS was enriched by between $1 million and $4 million daily when most of the oil it obtained was smuggled through Turkey. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that ISIS computers seized by American commandos in Syria contain irrefutable evidence of its earlier collusion with the Turkish government.
Turkey assisting ISIS to replace al-Qaeda as the Sunni jihadists in Syria, morevover, escalated that conflict into a full-scale regional war between Sunnis and Shi’ites. When Erdoğan finally agreed to fight ISIS, NATO reluctantly went along with his demand to withhold much-needed support from the Kurds, who had fought ISIS effectively from the war’s beginning. Fortunately, the Kurds continue to confront ISIS and Erdoğan has also joined the fight. ISIS conducted a string of suicide bombings in Turkey and launched rockets into southern Turkish cities near the Syrian border.
Graham Fuller, a long-retired CIA official and American author of several books on the Muslim world, wrote in his blog on July 20: “… Erdoğan is now in the process of destroying virtually everything his party created in the first decade of governance. His sweeping purges and the pall of fear and uncertainty is destroying Turkey itself.”
The full details of the attempted coup on July 15 might never be fully known and statements emerging from tortured prisoners have little probative value. There is agreement that a group of mid-ranking Turkish soldiers seized control of the Parliament in Ankara and Istanbul’s bridges, airports and some police stations. Turkish citizens, including police, soon courageously overpowered them. Erdoğan himself avoided soldiers attempting to seize him and, through his cellphone, called on military loyal to him and encouraged his supporters to rush into the streets of Istanbul and elsewhere.
According to Amnesty International observers in Turkey, those affected by the crackdown and purges, which continued well after July 15, and the state of emergency declared five days later, already include more than 15,000 detained; more than 45,000 suspended or removed from their jobs, including judges, police and prosecutors; more than 1,000 private schools and educational institutions closed and 138,000 school children transferred to state schools; 131 media organizations and publishers shut down, including 16 TV channels, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers and 29 publishing houses.
The state of emergency allows the president and his ministers to bypass Parliament in enacting new laws and further limiting basic rights. On July 24, Erdoğan seized control of more than 2,250 social, educational and health-care facilities, terming them threats to the nation. His goal appears to be to remove all elements of Atatürk’s secular state.
At a joint news conference in Washington this summer, John Kerry and Canada’s Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion addressed claims from Erdoğan that Gülen, 74, in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, had masterminded the coup attempt, requesting hard evidence rather than allegations as required for extradition in both countries. Gülen, who opposed coups in Turkey for decades, including the latest attempt, favours holding an international inquiry to examine the causes of the attempted coup.
Tragically for Turkey and the world, indications are mounting that Erdoğan is using the attempted coup to subvert democracy, which Turks have defended with their lives over the past 93 years, in order to achieve his increasingly unconcealed authoritarian goals. Is Erdoğan, like Putin in Russia, seeking to give his citizens the formal institutions of a democracy, but gut them of any meaning? As Amnesty International recently indicated, the choices Turkey makes in the coming months will be an affirmation of the primacy of the rule of law and human rights or a return to the dark days of mass repression, torture and arbitrary detention.
Turkey is an important country to the Middle East, Europe and the world. The present state of emergency jeopardizes its already weakened democratic governance by granting even more arbitrary powers to a president with clearly autocratic inclinations. Many friends of Turkey hope Erdoğan will somehow accept the real lessons of July 15 and move away from confrontation and vengeance towards national reconciliation, democracy and the rule of law.
David Kilgour is an author, human rights activist, former lawyer and former member of Parliament. He was secretary of state for Latin America and Africa and, later, secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific. He was elected as a Conservative and later a Liberal, and ended his parliamentary career as an independent.