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What (and who) is next in Turkey?

By Oset Babur

On July 15, 2016, members of the Turkish armed forces launched a coup against the Justice and Development Party government, also known as the AKP government. For many Turks, this was a chilling reminder of the military’s attempts to take control of the government in the 1970s and 1980s. Superficially, the coup seemed to be a step toward brighter days—a Turkey without Erdogan, a Turkey that would once again become secular, progressive, and modern? But, here’s the thing: military takeovers are, by nature, anti-democratic. The injection of martial law into any society, no matter how thuggish the existing regime, is a step backward. The coup failed, and the headlines and hashtags are dying down. However, Turkey has moved into a new phase of chaos: What comes next?

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call to action via FaceTime became a soundbite embedded in Turkish history. The man who belittled the 2013 Gezi Park protesters as capulcular, peasants, cried out for civic engagement and public demonstrations to defend Turkey from the military uprising. Scores of Turks responded, throwing themselves in front of armed tanks and traffic, and the next day, Istanbul’s streets were littered with signs thanking them for the valor and commitment to “our Turkey.” But, what exactly is our Turkey? Today, it is a country that has blurred the line between Ataturk’s vision and the Arab world so frequently that it has become impossible to tell which owns Turkey’s soul. 

Immediately after Friday’s uprising, Erdogan began to purge the country of those with suspected links to the failed coup. On Tuesday, the AKP government suspended more than 15,000 employees of the education ministry, forced more than 1,500 university deans to resign, and revoked the licenses of 21,000 private school teachers. And to date, it has either arrested or detained more than 35,000 members of the military, police, and judiciary. After the AKP government openly referred to dissent as a “cancer” to be “cleansed” from public institutions, we can safely expect more unabashed abuses of power. And perhaps the worst part is, by spilling into the streets, the Turkish public showed the world its opposition to a forceful military takeover—and therefore its support for Erdogan.

Obviously, this situation puts Turks who oppose the current government, but who also remain ideologically against the coup, in a difficult situation. The options at play range from bad to worse, and Erdogan’s promise to severely punish those involved in Friday’s uprising are the words of a man who has just taken his cue to increase his vice-like grip on a country that is rapidly changing its international identity. Turkey is currently a member of NATO, and while Secretary of State John Kerry has said that its membership is not yet in jeopardy, the AKP’s response to the coup will determine whether or not this will remain true. Similarly, if Erdogan pushes to impose the death penalty on dissenters, Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will be formally terminated, and it will earn diplomatic backlash from its allies, including the United States. 

Regardless of Turkey’s next steps in its post-coup phase, one thing is abundantly clear: if the AKP government was anti-secular and increasingly anti-democratic before, it now has the motivation to live up to those expectations. 

Also part of the discussion is Fethullah Gulen, an imam now living in exile in the U.S. whom the AKP often accused of encouraging uprisings in the Turkish media, judicial system, and military. Erdogan’s obsession with Gulen will likely skyrocket as the purge of dissenters and efforts to arrest those responsible for the attempted coup continue. Sorting out those responsible for Turkey’s current chaos is less complicated than it seems. If the Turkish people hadn’t responded to Erdogan’s call to fight back against the military, he couldn’t perceive to have the kind of free reign that he currently does. Turkish citizens who were inspired by Erdogan’s call to action are therefore very much complicit in all the crackdowns and abuses of democratic power that will follow Friday’s uprising—and this is a brutal, painful reality, particularly for the significant faction of Turks who oppose the AKP. 

Opposing Turkey’s military coup does not mean sympathizing with Erdogan. And for many, the ideal of Turkey as a secular, modern, and progressive country is a fading dream. In times like these, it is critical not to conflate a military takeover with a step in the right direction. If we did, we would risk becoming just as radical and out-of-touch as Erdogan himself. Turkey deserves to have a democratically elected government, and so long as the people show their support by voting for the AKP, that’s who will be in power. 

Ultimately, Turkey’s problem is deeper than an attempted coup or an abuse of government power. Turkey’s problem is the overwhelming willingness of its people to vote in a government that is explicitly anti-Kemalist. So while it is easy to blame the AKP, Erdogan, and the military, Turkey needs to take a long, hard look at itself—and not just at cosmopolitan Istanbul and Izmir where AKP opposition is the strongest—when trying to figure out how we got to where we are and where we go next. 

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Oset Babur is a copywriter at an American political organization. She recently graduated from Wellesley College with degrees in political science and economics. 

[Photo courtesy of WikimediaCommons]

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