Kim Sengupta watches President Erdogan savour his power on the anniversary of the failed coup. But resistance is growing, abroad and even at home
The year gone by since the failed coup in Turkey has not mellowed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire for vengeance. ‘We’ll first rip off heads of these traitors. We will cut their heads off,’ he declared in a speech on the anniversary, July 15. He would back the reintroduction of the death penalty ‘without hesitation’, he promised his cheering followers.
The President’s much-heralded address on the anniversary of the attempted putsch was due to start at 2.32am: the precise hour and minute that an airstrike had hit parliament on an extraordinary and violent night. That was missed by 49 minutes, but there was little doubt that Erdogan, with immense new powers following a referendum, is the man of the moment in Turkey. His opponents, meanwhile, are either in prison or struggling against relentless punitive pressure from the state.
Turkey is a nation divided and traumatised since the failed putsch, blamed on followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, with 50,000 people now in prison and 150,000 driven from their jobs, as well as many who have fled into exile. The week of the commemoration saw the sacking of 7,000 police officers, civil servants and academics, 14 more detained from the military and arrest warrants issued for 51 others.
The Turkish government has been widely attacked by human rights organisations and politicians in the West over the crackdown. Erdogan and his supporters have railed against this as unjust and hypocritical, even accusing critics of racism and Islamophobia. Opponents clamour over the civil rights of the ‘July 15 criminals’, they charge, while hardly mentioning the 249 who died and 2,200 wounded when people took to the streets against the aircraft, tanks and helicopter gunships of the mutinous troops.
There is anger directed at enemies, real and perceived, home and abroad, by Erdogan and his supporters. Amid the accusations and recriminations, plans for the country to join the European Union seem to be slipping further away than ever. Bringing back capital punishment would be a hammer blow. Parliament is still to vote on it, but the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has warned unequivocally: ‘If Turkey were to introduce the death penalty, the Turkish government would finally slam the door on EU membership.’
Erdogan knew his crowd in Ankara. His declaration on decapitation was greeted with chants of ‘We want execution: there must be payment.’ On the European Union, he proclaimed, to loud and prolonged applause: ‘I don’t look at what Hans and George say. I look at what Ahmet, Mehmet, Hasan, Huseyin, Ayse, Fatima and Hatice say.’
But Turkey’s strongman may have to care about what Angela (Merkel), Franz-Walter (Steinmeier) and Sigmar (Gabriel) have to say in the steadily worsening relations with Germany, the EU state with which Turkey is most involved. Germany’s Chancellor, President and Foreign Minister have reacted unusually strongly after a series of clashes with Ankara over the arrest in Turkey of German nationals, journalists and human rights activists, and the banning of a visit by German parliamentarians to German forces, based in Turkey, who are taking part in airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria.
Three months ago, when Merkel refused to allow rallies among Turkish expatriates in Germany supporting his referendum proposals, Erodogan accused her of using ‘Nazi’ methods, beginning the current downward spiral. President Steinmeier accused Erdogan of ‘trying not only to tailor the country to himself, but what’s left of the critics, and also being responsible for what’s left of the opponents being hounded, put in prison and being muzzled too’. The foreign ministry, meanwhile, which had previously warned journalists visiting Turkey that they risked arbitrary arrest, has extended the warning to all German citizens.
The dispute has economic implications too. Merkel and Gabriel have stated that there will be a review of export credit guarantees for German companies selling to Turkey. Talks will also be held with EU partners on aid given to Turkey. Germany is one of Turkey’s most important trading partners, with $43 billion in transactions. German investment is worth $14 billion a year; Germans make up 15 per cent of all tourism. Berlin therefore has some leverage with Ankara.
But the power does not lie all on one side. Merkel also negotiated the deal under which Turkey clamped down on refugees coming to Europe, in return for EU concessions on Turks travelling to European countries. She knows, and so does Erdogan, that there is deep trepidation among Western governments at the risk of another human wave coming from the Middle East and beyond.
Until recently, dissent within Turkey had been muted by waves of arrests. But hundreds of thousands gathered for a rally in Istanbul called the ‘revolt against injustice’. There were cheers for Kemal Kilindaroglu, the leader of the opposition Republican Peoples Party, CHP, who had led a march to the city from Ankara. The huge showing, he declared, was a ‘rebirth for us, for our country and our children’.
Erdogan was predictably intemperate in his response. At the headquarters of his ruling AKP party in Ankara, he said Kilindaroglu and his supporters ‘could be accused of being terrorist lovers’, who carried out their walk for Gulen and the armed Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK. ‘They say their march is comparable with the martyrs and those who gave their blood for democracy fighting the coup. They are shameless hypocrites. They walked 450 kilometres in this march of theirs: did they spend four and a half minutes of that time thinking about those killed by terrorists? We are the ones who care about those who suffered; we are the ones fighting the terrorists.’
At the same event a young man presented Erdogan with a torn Turkish flag, stained with blood. He had been waving it when shot by soldiers during the attempted coup. As he handed over the flag, he declared, ‘I want to give it to you, because you are the one who would know how to really value something so precious.’
The encounter was stage-managed, but the sentiments behind it were not. Turkey’s President continues to enjoy the support of his compatriots, who firmly believe his warning that the nation is under attack, and must be defended by measures which are strong, even brutal.