A year later, Turkey is a divided society
As the first anniversary of the coup attempt in Turkey approaches, the country has entered a week of commemoration activities. Despite the trauma, the immediate post-coup period revealed a glimpse of possibility for a new Turkey. It was an opportunity to purge the ever-present deep state, an institutionalized threat to national sovereignty, and serve as a wakeup call for the country’s unapologetic leaders.
The post-coup political landscape was bleak, but at the same time hopeful. Optimists were eager for a more self-aware President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recognized his role in the Gulen movement’s onslaught on Turkish politics and reached out across the aisles of Parliament to help repair Turkey’s fragile political frame. But this optimism was misplaced.
It ignored the realities of a Turkey under 14 years of rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), with a determined leader who had no intention of giving up power. After three terms as prime minister, Erdogan maneuvered a swift transition to president in 2014. This saw the more politically reserved Abdullah Gul retire from political life, and the architect of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, become prime minister.
The reshuffling of the AKP leadership did not stop there, with Davutoglu retiring months before the coup attempt due to purported disagreements with Erdogan. Davutoglu’s more independent-minded positioning on several domestic and party-wide issues, including the Kurdish peace process, had provoked Erdogan’s paranoia. The AKP’s identity had shifted from a brand of religious conservatism to squarely pro-Erdogan.
Turkey’s political diversity held much at stake. The June 2015 parliamentary elections had produced a surprise result: The AKP no longer held a majority, and would have to seek a coalition government. The unprecedented result was a blow to Erdogan, who had held public rallies for the AKP despite constitutional limitations on presidential partisanship.
He largely retreated from an active role in ensuing political negotiations, which officially ended within two months without results. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) had demonstrated a general unwillingness to negotiate with either side. With the breakdown of peace negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and spill-over from the Syrian war, a more subdued image worked in Erdogan’s favor.
When the government announced snap elections for November, the AKP espoused a more nationalist tone. The gamble, largely a bet on Turkey’s insecurity and MHP’s stubbornness, had paid off. In May 2016, the government voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of lawmakers. The legal move largely targeted politicians from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, with those of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in favor.
The post-coup political landscape was bleak, but at the same time hopeful. Optimists were eager for a more self-aware President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to help repair Turkey’s fragile political frame. But this optimism was misplaced.
As time has come to reveal with the sentencing of CHP Deputy Enis Berberoglu, Erdogan had no intention of limiting its scope. The CHP was caught in a quagmire of walking a thin moderate line that protected its hybrid secular-nationalist positioning in the face of an increasingly accusatory government.
Erdogan knew the party’s limitation and used it to his advantage, the argument being that when the time comes, the opposition would be too divided and resentful to counter his majority bloc in Parliament.
To this day, much of the logistics of the night of the coup attempt remain a mystery. The instigators, the chain of command, the extent of knowledge among officers and interagency communication prompt questions as to the intelligence’s awareness of what was going on.
What is known is that the lack of transparency has worked in favor of Erdogan who, in a monumental referendum this April, attained unprecedented presidential powers that are part of a package of constitutional reforms that will see Turkey transition to an executive presidency come 2019. What some had years ago merely called a bargaining chip to prompt the opposition to negotiate with the AKP has come to fruition.
In a sense, the coup commemorations are to the AKP what the 2013 Gezi Park protests against growing authoritarian rule were to the opposition: A celebration of resistance. Weeklong events and decorated posters mark a concentrated effort to replace one public memory with another: If you participated in the Gezi protests, where were you on the night of July 15?
It is important to Erdogan that he is backed by the “people’s will” as Turkey approaches its centennial. For him, the political minefield is a legacy game, an unwavering test to represent those in society who feel silenced in the history books. The anniversary of the coup serves as a reminder of shared experience, but is also a disclaimer for challenges to AKP rule and, by extension, Erdogan.
If recent history tells us anything, it is that the ongoing purges will continue, at least until 2019 when Turkey is due for a parliamentary and presidential vote. As the AKP increasingly targets the CHP, the country’s oldest and once seemingly untouchable party, it is apparent that the AKP’s strategy involves little moderation.
That is not to say Erdogan is unaware of the limits to his power. Turkey is a divided society with an opposition that he has been unable to convert or eliminate. His decision to downplay rather than ban the opposition’s recent Justice March reflects his years-long fortitude as a pragmatic leader. He is choosing to let the system do its job; a system he helped create.
As the exit to the 2019 election nears, the opposition is confronted with a question of determination. Facing a bumpy road and uneven playing field, it will have to decide whether steering separately is worth the risk of repeating history.
• Ilke Denizli is an analyst at The Delma Institute, a risk advisory firm located in Abu Dhabi. She holds a masters in international affairs from Columbia University, where she specialized in nationalism and comparative imperial legacies in post-Ottoman and post-Soviet Eurasia. A Turkish-American, Ilke is also interested in diaspora politics and identity formation.