Turkey’s fragile democracy under threat following year of turmoil

Supporters of Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, outside the presidential palace.

The detainment of 100,000 people since the failed coup of July 2016, and constitutional reforms that bolster the president’s powers threaten a fragile democracy says Carl Bildt.

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

The attempted coup was nothing if not dramatic. Mutinous F-16 fighters bombed the Turkish parliament, and 249 people died.

But the putschists failed to detain the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 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 Erdogan 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. 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 removal of internal threats must adhere to the rule of law and human rights, and have broad support within Turkish society.

Unfortunately, some elements of Erdogan’s response to the 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.

Countless people have been dismissed from their jobs, with no prospects for the future. Numerous independent media outlets have been shuttered, and, in just the past few weeks, prominent human-rights advocates — including the director of Amnesty International in Turkey — have been arrested for supporting “terrorism,” a charge that defies belief.

In the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkish society united behind Erdogan.

But the government’s actions since then have increasingly polarised the country. 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, including most young, urban voters.

When the changes take effect, Turkey’s political system will be transformed, and the president will wield 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 toward granting its Kurdish citizens full civil rights.

Turkey’s impressive progress 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.

Turkey’s membership chances had already taken 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 member states there, not least in Germany.

Without the political anchor provided by the EU accession process, Turkey’s modernisation 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, Erdogan has 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 100m, 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 Turkey is put on a credible path toward 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.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017. project-syndicate.org


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