The coup that followed the coup in Turkey

August 11, 2016

Alan Maass and Tom Gagné report on the aftermath of the failed military uprising in Turkey and the backdrop to the government's escalating repression and violence.

A RUTHLESS counter-coup has been underway in Turkey since the swift defeat of an attempted takeover by sections of the military on July 15.

According to the latest figures cited by Turkey's Justice Minister, some 26,000 people have been detained and 8,000 remain under investigation since the coup attempt collapsed hours after it was launched. More than 16,000 people have been formally arrested, 50,000 have had their passports revoked, and over 130 media outlets have been shut down.

Since re-establishing their authority, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) have targeted anyone associated with the forces accused of carrying out the coup.

But the repression is directed more widely against any and all critics of the government--including the left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP), based centrally among the oppressed Kurds, which opposed both the botched takeover and Erdoğan's counter-coup.

This marks a further escalation of repression by the AKP government as it concentrates power in its hands, and uses it more and more freely against a growing opposition. As Green Left Weekly writer Tony Iltis concluded, "Once [the Erdoğan] government's survival was guaranteed, it quickly became clear that one coup's failure was becoming another's success."

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

THE JULY 15-16 uprising against the government was apparently organized by followers of cleric Fetuhallah Gülen, the leader of the Hizmet movement who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S.

When the AKP first came to power in 2002, Gülen was an early ally. Erdoğan's party relied on followers of Gülen--who advocates a different interpretation of Islam to the AKP, but is similarly pro-business and socially conservative--to take positions in the bureaucracy, educational institutions and especially the military, as the AKP attempted to exercise power in a state machine run for decades by military-dominated secular parties, or by the generals themselves after previous coups.

But as the once-popular Erdoğan government has faced growing discontent throughout society, conflicts between the AKP and Gülen followers became sharper, especially in the past several years, with the two sides exchanging charges and counter-charges of corruption and conspiracy. Some analysts speculate that the coup plotters made their move after learning that the government was about to carry out further arrests and purges.

Whatever its source, the coup began with military units capturing the airport and key bridges over the Bosphorus in Istanbul and various positions in the capital of Ankara, including the state television and radio broadcasting facility.

But it quickly became apparent that the uprising was disorganized and the military itself was split--several prominent officers known to oppose the government nevertheless publicly denounced the coup while it was underway. An attempt to capture Erdoğan at a resort hotel where he was on vacation failed, and the president was able to issue a call for resistance.

In the early morning hours, likely out of despair as their plot crumbled, the coup forces unleashed deadly violence, bombing the parliament and other government buildings with fighter jets, and killing dozens of civilians who had turned out to oppose the coup. More than 250 people were killed and 1,400 wounded in the clashes.

FROM HIS first appearance afterward, Erdoğan made it clear that the failed coup would serve as an excuse for a crackdown. "This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army," he said in announcing the first purges.

Erdoğan's pre-dawn call to resist the coup--delivered via a CNN reporter's smartphone held up to a TV studio camera--brought large numbers of people into the streets, which gave the impression to the world of a mass popular protest standing up to the military.

The large mobilizations did help turn the tide against the would-be dictators, but Turkish leftists report that groups of AKP supporters also beat and lynched surrendering soldiers and attacked neighborhoods where ethnic minorities and supporters of the left predominate. Syrian refugees have also faced violence in the coup's aftermath.

The scope of the government's crackdown since mid-July has been enormous.

Some 50,000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors and government workers have been fired, detained or suspended by the AKP government. Around one-third of the country's judiciary has been dismissed. Over 40 percent of the military's generals and admirals have been detained or dishonorably discharged--among them is the commander of Turkish forces fighting the Kurdish insurrection in the southeast.

Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn reported that in a matter of a few days at the end of July, the government shut down 45 newspapers, 16 television channels--including a children's station--and 23 radio stations. "When one small circulation satirical magazine published a cartoon mildly critical of the government last week," Cockburn wrote, "police went from shop to shop, confiscating copies."

Before that, Erdoğan used his powers under a newly declared "state of emergency" to close down 15 universities and more than 1,000 primary-grade schools that allegedly had links to the Gülen movement. More than 1,000 charities and 19 unions were also banned, and the government announced blanket restrictions on travel for all academics.

As left-wing author Cihan Tugal said in an interview with Jacobin, the number of arrests and dismissals is likely to grow well beyond 50,000 in the months to come. "The chance that even a fraction of these people are seriously linked to a coup that was so poorly organized is, to say the least, extremely low," Tugal said. "In all likelihood, many of them are not even Gülenists."

ONE RUNNING theme of Erdoğan and other AKP leaders has been the alleged involvement of the U.S. government in aiding and abetting the military mutiny. "America is behind the coup," Labor Minister Süleyman Soylu stated bluntly during an interview with the TV channel Haberturk.

The charge seems to be based mainly on the fact that Gülen lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S. Any involvement by the U.S. government is unlikely, given Washington's close relationship with its NATO ally.

Frictions between the two governments have grown more heated, though, especially around the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government has been an unenthusiastic participant in the more, even less so since the U.S. has come to rely on the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces as its proxy ground troops in recent operations in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey.

Relations could deteriorate further as the AKP government insists on the extradition of Gülen. But no one should pay much heed to Secretary of State John Kerry's criticisms of the AKP government crackdown. As Juan Cole pointed out in the Nation, the U.S. government tolerated massive violations of civil rights when Turkey was under direct military rule in the 1980s. "Washington, Brussels and Ankara likely need each other too much to divorce," Cole wrote, "even if they are increasingly trapped in a bad marriage."

For his part, Erdoğan is probably more interested in accusing the U.S. because of the effect on politics within Turkey. Especially in the past year, he has more and more played up nationalism to maintain a base of support for the government amid continuing discontent--and the botched coup provided the perfect opportunity to ratchet up the rhetoric.

On Sunday, Erdoğan was the featured speaker at an enormous pro-government rally in Istanbul. Most of the well over 1 million people in the flag-waving crowd were AKP supporters, but there were significant contingents from most opposition parties, both on the podium and in the crowd.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the Republican People's Party (CHP)--before 2002, the dominant force in Turkish politics between periods of direct military rule--promised that a "new door of compromise" had been opened after the July 15 attack. Leaders of the other main secular nationalist party, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), with its openly fascist "Grey Wolves" youth organization, were also present.

"Erdoğan has been brutal and unfair to us in the past, but I believe he has now understood the real importance of the republic's values," Ilhan Girit, a CHP supporter, told a Reuters reporter.

BUT ONE major opposition party was conspicuously missing from the August 7 rally: the left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP. That absence says it all about who will pay a price for the intensification of Turkish nationalism--something its members and supporters know all too well.

In elections in June 2015, the HDP caused a political earthquake by winning 13.1 percent of the vote--surpassing the absurdly high threshold for a party to get seats in parliament. The 10 percent bar was written into the constitution by a previous military government specifically to prevent pro-Kurdish and left-wing parties from gaining representation.

The HDP's success caused the AKP share of the vote to fall to 40.9 percent, and the ruling party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002, scuttling Erdoğan's plans to give the presidency draconian powers in a new draft of the constitution.

The main base of the HDP is the Kurds, a long-oppressed national minority that accounts for around 20 percent of Turkey's population. But the HDP's success last year was also the result of attracting support from the radical left and secular moderates, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities.

The backdrop to all this was the eruption of anti-government protests and activism in 2013. The symbol of the new resistance was the struggle over Gezi Park, pitting a small number of opponents of the AKP's development plans for a small green space against the repressive might of the government. A violent crackdown against the peaceful protesters ignited demonstrations across Istanbul, and later around the country.

But Gezi Park was the product of long-simmering discontent with the ruling party that had won an unprecedented victory against Turkey's military-dominated political system in 2002.

At that point, despite years of state repression against political Islamism, the AKP was able win wide support by representing an alternative to the decades of corruption under a militantly secular elite of politicians, generals and bankers who were unaccountable to the rest of society.

Behind the face of its modest social welfare programs to aid the poor, however, the AKP was completely committed to neoliberal economic policies, which made it a favorite of Western governments. The combination of a moderately conservative Islamist party presiding over steadfastly pro-business--especially multinational business--economic policies would come to be known as the "Turkish Model." Erdoğan was greeted by international diplomats as a reformer.

The Turkish model prospered for the better part of a decade as the AKP brought in new foreign investment and implemented a robust gentrification program in the big cities, especially Istanbul. Under a thriving infrastructure program, the number of airports and high-speed railway lines across the Anatolian plateau nearly doubled.

However, the 2008 global economic crisis revealed many underlying contradictions within the Turkish economy. The economy's reliance on foreign investment produced an overhang of debt. Erdoğan and the AKP came under pressure to impose austerity policies that reversed previous gains in working-class living standards--and to resort to increasingly political authoritarianism to make sure they happened.

GEZI PARK was the first open rebellion against the AKP. But the social discontent continued after that round of protest receded, expressed in a series of crises for the government: the Soma mining disaster that dramatized the deadly cost of neoliberal policies, and then a financial scandal involving high-level Turkish bankers and politicians.

When the AKP's position was decisively weakened in the June 2015 election by the HDP's success, Erdoğan doubled down on a tried-and-true method for Turkey's rulers: Anti-Kurdish scapegoating and violence.

This was ironic given that another source of the AKP's popularity when it first came to power was the "peace process" it launched to end the government's civil war against the armed rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). A war-weary population rewarded the AKP with electoral support, including votes from Kurdish areas that added to the AKP totals in 2007 and 2011.

But the political benefits of reviving Turkish nationalism led Erdoğan to follow the same road as the generals before him: Unleash repression against the Kurds.

Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes against PKK positions in Southeastern Turkey, as well as nearby Syria and Iraq, wrecking the "peace process" for good--and military units were dispatched to Kurdish regions to impose curfews, provoking deadly clashes.

Erdoğan's air war against the Kurds has largely taken place under the cover of participation in the U.S. war on ISIS. Washington has been pressing the Turkish government to join its coalition against ISIS and tolerated the air strikes against Kurdish positions without much criticism.

Even before the June election, the HDP endured a campaign of violence and intimidation--one human rights group documented 176 attacks on party supporters and facilities. After the HDP's success, the terrorism intensified.

Less than a month before a second election in November, suicide bombers detonated two explosions at the gathering point for the HDP contingent in a march to protest the worsening violence. The blasts killed well over 100 people. AKP officials had the gall to blame the marchers for "organiz[ing] terrorist demonstrations in order to incite discord in social harmony," said Veysel Eroğlu, the minister for forestry and water.

Despite the murderous violence directed against its leaders and supporters, the HDP managed to win 10.7 percent of the vote in the November election, again qualifying to have its representatives in parliament.

But the AKP was able to regain its parliamentary majority--and continue its war on Kurds and the left. Among the latest acts of repression, the government ordered the arrest of academics and intellectuals who signed petitions for an end to the war, and Erdoğan succeeded in repealing immunity for about 140 members of parliament--a move designed primarily against MPs of the HDP.

At the pro-government rally last weekend, Erdoğan bragged that the "enemies of democracy" had been defeated when the coup attempt failed. But he and his AKP government are the real enemies of democracy.

Further Reading

From the archives