After Attempted Coup, Turkey Slides Rapidly Into Authoritarianism

Turkey's leader is still retaliating against would-be plotters behind the failed July coup, and cracking down on protest of any kind

Turkey's Erdogan is still arresting people after July's failed coup — REUTERS
Nov 18, 2016 at 6:00 AM ET

On a recent Friday evening in Istanbul’s Haci Ahmet neighborhood, the air was filled with the sound of pots and pans being struck by ladles. Earlier in the day, police arrested 11 lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), and in protest, their supporters took to the streets.

As darkness fell, hundreds tried making their way to a small park for a rally only to find their routes blocked by a wall of Turkish riot police holding giant plastic shields, backed by a TOMA, a giant, white armored truck capped by a powerful water cannon. The would-be protesters gave up, in their place came a few dozen young men with covered faces. Hours later, smoke belched from the carcass of a car set on fire by molotov cocktails, the pavement blackened and covered with stones, glass, concrete – whatever people could throw at the police.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which was already threatening thousands of intellectuals and journalists with prison time for insulting the President or sympathizing with what it calls “terrorist” groups, has gone into a free fall of wanton suppression since renegade soldiers tried to overthrow it on July 15 this year. Hundreds died that night confronting tanks, fighter jets, and machine gun fire, to thwart what would have been the fourth military coup to overturn a democratic Turkish government.

But since then, the nation has been under a state of emergency, and the aftermath of that night continues to haunt the country months later. Many now wonder if a military takeover would look much different from what they are now witnessing.

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Confrontations like the one in Haci Ahmet are becoming a daily occurrence in cities across Turkey, as Kurds, journalists, teachers unions, and a host of groups at the receiving end of Erdogan’s purge of the opposition lash out. The protests are small and police break them up quickly, in part because locals are too frightened to confront the state, and in part because the state has made it nearly impossible for anyone to organize a mass movement. The entire country is scrambling to find a way around a telecommunications blockade that makes social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp nearly unusable.

“In Turkey, when you don’t like somebody, you say they are a terrorist,” says Ertugrul Kurkcu, an HDP member of parliament who expects to be arrested at any moment. Kurkcu faces more than a dozen indictments for a slew of charges, the most serious of which is support for a terror organization, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The PKK has fought a brutal separatist movement for Kurdish rights for three decades now, and more than 2,000 people from both sides of the conflict – policemen, soldiers, and civilians – have been killed in the last year and a half alone. It is listed as a terror organization by Turkey, the European Union and the U.S.

Erdogan once supported the HDP, especially in its role as a mediator between the state and the PKK, but they have become a scapegoat for the collapse of the peace process. Lawmakers like Kurkcu, a member of one of Turkey’s major political parties, no longer enjoy parliamentary immunity, and face terror charges for acts like attending funerals of PKK fighters, or allowing municipal resources to be used for their burials, or even simply voicing support for the Kurdish cause.

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“None of us have been charged with anything related to arms or ammunition,” says Kurkcu. “But with Turkish anti-terror laws so vague, any prosecutor can charge you with being part of a terror organization. Even if you simply say the Kurdish people will struggle and win their cause, this is said to be evidence against you, because you are sharing the same talking points with the PKK.”

It’s not just those accused of being PKK supporters who are in the crossfire. The July 15 coup attempt is being blamed on the followers of Fethullah Gulen, an aging cleric in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania who has millions of followers in Turkey. Anyone with a remote connection to his movement, known as Hizmet, is targeted for treason and terrorism.

More than 110,000 government workers have been suspended and their passports revoked for alleged connections to Hizmet. Some 37,000 have been imprisoned, including at least 160 journalists, and more than 150 news outlets have been shuttered.

A third of those outlets have no connection to Gulen; most are leftist or secular outlets that have historically shown animosity to Erdogan as well as his former Islamist allies.

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“Everyone who ever took a picture with Gulen should be arrested,” reads a banner at the entrance to the headquarters of the daily Cumhuriyet, the country’s oldest secular newspaper and perhaps the last remaining critical news outlet in the country. The editor, Murat Sabuncu, along with 12 others at the paper, were arrested and charged with supporting not only Gulen, but also the PKK, for writing that was critical of the government after the failed coup.

The newspaper is being targeted, according to an Istanbul prosecutor, for characterizing the sweeping arrests after the failed coup as a “purge,” and reporting on civilian casualties by the military in its war on the PKK. Cumhuriyet’s reporting, it is alleged, paved the way for the coup attempt itself.

Under a state of emergency imposed since the coup, police can detain suspects without charge for 60 days. Only a few dozen suspects have been brought before a judge. “But the problem is, in most of the cases, lawyers are restricted from access to the files of the indictment,” said Kerem Altiparmak, a human rights lawyer and political science professor at Ankara University. “Many lawyers are afraid to even take cases, and those that are, are working in vain, because judges are saying it is a terror case, so lawyers are not permitted to see the evidence.”

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With judicial channels largely closed, it would take the support of opposition parties for those looking to challenge Erdogan to make any impact in Turkey, but there are signs this might happen, with the country’s second-largest party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), appearing to call for a broad platform to challenge Erdogan.

“The AKP has sidelined social consensus and continued its attacks against democratic, secular and social principles of the rule of law and the core values of the Republic of Turkey,” the CHP said in a statement, calling for “citizens” to take to the streets and “resist democratically.”

With the police and judiciary firmly under Erdogan’s control, it remains to be seen what kind of street presence it would take to reverse Turkey’s slide toward authoritarian rule.