Erdogan Leads Turkey’s Democracy on a Populist Death March After Failed Coup

In my previous piece on Turkey, written as the coup attempt was underway, I noted that should the coup fail, Erdoğan would simply accelerate Turkish democracy’s death march he had already put in motion for some time.  Sadly,  things have been utterly predictable since the end of the coup, which ended up failing quickly, and resoundingly so, except for perhaps the fact that Erdoğan is pressing his post-coup advantage even more forcefully than expected in a purge unprecedented in recent global memory.  At stake is the survival both of Turkey’s democracy and of the NATO alliance as we know it.  And both Tocqueville and Orwell can shed some light on all of this.

 Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse August 19, 2016 

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) August 19th, 2016 UPDATED August 21st to include information on “evidence” against Gülen

AMMAN — Since the failure of the dramatic coup attempt in Turkey, we are witnessing the methodical destruction of everything democratic about Turkey, save the exception of the majority’s ability to impose its will on the nation as a whole through periodic voting: a true Tocquevillian “tyranny of the majority”  empowered and sustained through Orwellian means.

Erdoğan’s Mob Rule: The Tyranny of the AKP Majority

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly using rhetoric that credits he and the people with “victory” over the coup plotters.  The lesson: Erdoğan is the people, and the people are him; they are one: he speaks for them, they speak for him.

Using such rhetoric, Erdoğan for weeks exhorted his followers to engage in nightly demonstrations since the coup failed, providing free public transportation to—and free food and water at—the rallies throughout to encourage mass attendance and culminating in series of final, massive rallies in 80 cities on Sunday, August 8th, including one with millions of people in Istanbul that might have been the nation’s largest rally ever. Though these rallies received robust support and encouragement from the government, the country’s main Kurdish political party—the HDP, the third-largest party in Turkey’s parliament—was excluded.  Considering that many other demonstrations not favorable to Erdoğan’s agenda are banned and met with force at the hands of the police, considering that Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party is using government funds to stage repeated, continuous political rallies that exclude a major party representing a minority with which the government is in a brewing mini-civil war (or insurgency, if you like, which is claiming lives even now) in Turkey’s southeast, this must certainly be considered an improper use of power in a country that is supposedly a “democracy.”  

Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service via AP

The again, this should not be a surprise, as Erdoğan is a man who seems to have deliberately stoked violent conflict with the Kurds as a way to reverse his party’s June 2015 electoral setback in which it lost its parliamentary majority, and the country’s Kurdish HDP won seats for the first time; in response to this, the Turkish president campaigned on fear and offering to be a strongman for Turks against the Kurdish militants (whom he falsely blamed for ISIS attacks); he and his party reveled in the ensuing divisiveness and conflict and the ploy would succeed in increasing support for the AKP in time for new elections. 

The new elections came about because a coalition failed to form in time after the June elections for the first time in Turkish history, and many saw Erdoğan violating the constitutionally-mandated neutrality the president is supposed to observe during the coalition-forming process, as he aggressively pushed for new elections (an unprecedented move) rather than exhaust the options for coalition-building, declining to ask the main opposition party to form a coalition after his own party failed to do so, clearly hoping that his AKP would perform better if given another chance in snap elections.  His AKP was able to erase those setbacks to the tune of catapulting itself to a solid majority in the ensuing November 2015 elections while the Kurdish party lost some seats.  Notably, that election’s legitimacy was questioned both in terms of the run-up to the election suffering from a climate of government hostility to Erdoğan’s and his party’s critics in the press and in terms of violence in the country’s southeast, which made it difficult for many of the country’s Kurds to vote.

The recent post-coup rallies were also taking on a sort of cult-like quality, as the populist overtones merged with a passionate devotion to the singular man, Erdoğan, with signs at the rally held by participants displaying such slogans as “You are a gift from god, Erdoğan” and “Order us to die and we will do it.”  Official banners advertising the rally, besides emphasizing the free transportation, noted “The triumph is democracy’s, the squares are the people’s,” a slogan also emblazoned on massive banners hung from major buildings and bridges.  In texts to his supporters, Erdoğan has made it explicitly clear he wanted these rallies to “To teach the traitor, the terrorist, a lesson,” referring to Gülen’s supporters and Gülen himself, whose movement Erdoğan has for some time dubiously labeled a terrorist one.  The lesson is clear: Democracy and the people have “won,” they support Erdoğan, and the people and Erdoğan together now own the public square and have a monopoly on acceptable discourse and demonstrations; the message behind all that is that those with a different message are not welcome and are being put on notice, including Gülenists and Kurds, together consisting of a huge chunk of the existing opposition to Erdoğan’s politics.

As expected, these rallies and this message have had a chilling effect on Turkish citizens who don’t support Erdoğan and his brand of populist, religious, and chauvinistic nationalism.  As Tocqueville wrote two centuries ago:

“Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression; the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as the will which it is intended to coerce. Under the absolute sway of one man the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul; but the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose proudly superior. Such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says: “You shall think as I do or you shall die”; but he says: “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.””

The Recently-Unprecedented Numbers of Turkey’s Purge


Even more ominously, these rallies are also set against the backdrop of a massive purge, a crackdown not seen in the world for years and not seen in a democracy for much longer, one drawing comparisons to the purges in more (relatively) recent history of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and following Iran’s 1979 revolution.  As of August 2nd:

  • Almost 9,000 police have been fired
  • Over 10,000 soldiers have been detained and almost half of the top generals and admirals have been arrested or fired
  • Over 2,700 members of the judiciary have been suspended
  • Some 21,000 private school teachers have been suspended
  • Some 21,700 staff members of the Ministry of Education have been fired
  • Some 1,500 university deans—every university dean in Turkey—have been made to resign
  • Some academics who added their names to a petition calling for an end to Turkey’s war against Kurds were suspended
  • Over 100 news media outlets were forced to close
  • Over 1,500 ministry of finance officials were suspended

Overall, about 35,000 people have been held for questioning, with about half of those undergoing formal arrests and facing trials and over 81,000 officials have been suspended or fired from their positions.  The aforementioned major Kurdish political party has had its offices raided and some its people detained, as well.  The arrests are continuous and ongoing, include non-servile religious clerics, and as of just this Monday, the judiciary’s preeminent Palace of Justice was raided, with well over 100 people there being detained, and the same is just now beginning to happen to dozens of private-sector businesses, with well over 100 executives now being sought to be put in detention.

And the thing is, all this has been planned for years.

A Far-Reaching Purge Long-Planned

Erdoğan’s people have been anticipating potential coups for years, even claiming this recent one has been something that has been building up for decades.  Whatever their assertions, what is less debatable is that Erdoğan’s people in the government have for years had plans and lists of people ready to be acted upon were just such an event like the recent coup to occur, and possibly even in its absence (indeed, Turkish officials admit preparation was already underway before the coup).

In other worse, this purge is not a natural, organic reaction to a surprise event. Erdoğan even referred to the coup attempt as “a gift from God,” which makes total sense once you understand what he is doing with Turkey’s current purge.

The ostensible targets are people who seem to support, no matter how vaguely or minutely, the movement of reclusive Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who lives in a sort of self-imposed exile in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and whose movement the Turkish government accuses of a massive, society-and-government-wide fifth column infiltration of Turkey, with the government using rhetoric reminiscent of Josef Stalin’s manner of describing vast conspiracies of supposed enemies of the Soviet State.  In reality, the current Turkish purges go far beyond coup plotters to anyone who is pro-Gülen and clearly even beyond that—all this is even by Turkish officials’ admission—and Erdoğan is clearly using the purge to blunt opposition and cement his own hold on power.  Even nearly 100 Turkish soccer referees have been accused of being coup plotters, and drama around the coup has even ensnared one of Turkey’s soccer greats who was key in Turkey’s remarkable 3rd-place finish in the 2002 World Cup as well as a Turkish NBA basketball star, with Turkey recently issuing an arrest warrant for the former.  

In fact, so many people are being arrested that Turkey has decided to release tens of thousands of non-violent criminals from prison to make room for all the judges, teachers, lawyers, journalists and others who have been arrested as part of the purge, since the prison system is now newly over-capacity because of the purge.

Gülen and Erdoğan: From Allies to Enemies

Selahattin Sevi / Zaman Daily News via EPA

Ironically, Gülen and his movement were allied with Erdoğan and his AKP years ago; each side operated on a platform of religious reformers pushing back against Turkey’s longstanding secular establishment elite in the early ’00s, and Erdogan and his party needed Gülen’s and his movement to get enough public support, to have the bodies to carry out purges of many of the secularists, to provide the manpower to replace those purged.  

However, the more restrained and more moderately-Islamist Gülenists eventually became alarmed at Erdoğan’s lurch towards authoritarianism and when they moved to prosecute close allies of Erdogan for very real corruption in 2013 (the largest corruption scandal in recent Turkish history), the two had a massive falling out, with Erdoğan’s government since questionably labeling Gülen’s movement as terrorist group.  

It seems in Erdoğan’s Turkey, there is no room for rivals or shared credit: in seeking to discredit Gülen’s movement, Erdoğan is trying to rewrite the narrative of history that saw Gülen and his movement work hand in hand with Erdoğan and his AKP to reshape Turkey and wrest control of it from the secular elite establishment put in place by Atatürk when he founded the modern Turkish state from the post-WWI ashes of the Ottoman Empire; much like the ancient Roman occasional tradition of damnatio memoriae of trying to wipe disgraced (or sometimes just rival-to-the-new-ruler) figures from history, Erdoğan is seeing to it Gülen and his followers are removed from the story in any positive light, that only he and his AKP supporters (“the people,” as the pro-Erdoğan language characterizes them, as if there are not patriotic Turks who are against Erdoğan) will be seen as the founders, builders, and saviors of the new Turkey.  As Orwell wrote in early 1944, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits atrocities but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.”

Having now pushed Gülenists out of the public sphere and electrified his base, Turkey’s president can rely on his supporters, then, to help stifle current and future dissent through social pressure, easing the burden on the government, which, of course, will still be there to use force when social pressure fails.  The failed coup has given Erdoğan and his rather unlettered, chauvinist, now loudly-assertive AKP crowd the ability to control even more so Turkish education, police, courts, media, even the military—essentially, all the tools needed to have a stranglehold on societal mechanisms used to form public opinion—so that over time, the ease and ability to stridently go against the majority will be limited, indeed (in case you’re wondering, the government already had a strong dominance over the country’s clerical religious establishment).  For Tocqueville

“When an opinion has taken root among a democratic people and established itself in the minds of the bulk of the community, it afterwards persists by itself and is maintained without effort, because no one attacks it. Those who at first rejected it as false ultimately receive it as the general impression, and those who still dispute it in their hearts conceal their dissent; they are careful not to engage in a dangerous and useless conflict.”

Gülen’s Extradition: A (Useful) Excuse for Anti-Americanism

The fact that Gülen is living in Pennsylvania is extremely convenient for Erdoğan, who has decided to play the anti-Western, anti-American card for fairly full effect in Turkey.  Most Turks actually think that the U.S. government was behind the coup, a belief amply fed by senior Turkish officials directly accusing the U.S. of supporting the coup, by wild reports in the Turkish media, and by even Erdoğan himself implying the U.S. at least supported it in some ways: the Turkish president  went so far as to accuse a top U.S. general of “siding with coup plotters” and to exclaim that “This coup attempt has actors inside Turkey, but its script was written outside. Unfortunately, the West is supporting terrorism and stands by coup plotters” (ironic because it is Turkey that seems to actually be supporting terrorismaccording to evidence).  Such accusations made by Erdoğan are more or less red meat for his base, and he has been rhetorically issuing ultimatums to the U.S. government, offering a stark choice: hand Gülen over to Turkish authorities or lose your relationship with Turkey.  

Erdoğan’s repeated calls for the U.S. to hand Gülen over are basically a well-orchestrated ploy to drum up anti-Americanism in Turkey: the U.S., of course, will only seriously consider a formal extradition request with compelling evidence, and Erdoğan can keep repeating these calls without submitting a formal extradition request and keep fomenting anti-Americanism in the process.  In fact, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım even explicitly linked the future level of anti-Americanism in Turkey to whether or not the U.S. handed over Gülen, saying “Whether or not the anti-Americanism in Turkey will continue is…dependent on this.”   There is certainly some truth to this, but it is also hard to imagine Turks suddenly having a dramatically more favorable opinion of the U.S. just because the U.S. would hand over the government’s prime suspect in a coup for which America is being blamed as a major player anyway.

What is certain is that there is no shortage of people who will be absolutely convinced that the U.S. is siding with Gülen and that it support the coup, and America not immediately handing him over only adds fuel to that fire.  This is a winning situation for Erdoğan: he gets to keep fanning anti-Gülen and anti-American sentiment, and especially since Gülen is still safe in Pennsylvania, Erdoğan can keep Turkey on a crisis footing, allowing him to easily continue his abuse of power, since Gülen, shielded by American non-extradition, can be framed by Erdoğan as a continual threat justifying extreme measures.  Clearly, then, Gülen is infinitely more useful to Erdoğan as a distant, U.S.-residing boogeyman than as a vanquished (possibly even executed) “traitor” in Turkey.  

August 21st UPDATE: Thus far, while Turkey has submitted documents related to Gülen, the U.S. did not consider the first batch it has reviewed to comprise a formal extradition request, and, in the words of one Justice Department official, those documents only detail “allegations of certain alleged criminal activities that pre-date the coup” effort, that “[a]t this point, Turkish authorities have not put forward a formal extradition request based on evidence that he was involved in the coup” plot; in other words, zero evidence about Gülen’s involvement in the failed coup has been provided.

While it is theoretically possible that Turkey will be able to provide a formal extradition request with evidence sufficient to merit the U.S. honoring an extradition request, I would wager that this will not happen.  For one thing, there may be no such evidence in existence; another point to consider is that if Turkey did have such documents, Erdoğan and other Turkish officials would not likely be so intensely publicly pressuring the U.S. to hand Gülen over; if they had a rock solid case, it would be an unnecessary rocking of the boat.  Instead, because they are seeming to lack the appropriate evidence, Turkey’s president may be hoping that his leverage on issues related to Syrian refugees, to ISIS, and to NATO will be enough to get the U.S. to cave in under pressure (thinking that is likely hubristic and a course of action that is not likely to happen without evidence).

Then again, maybe Erdoğan seeks anti-Americanism and drama with NATO for its own sake…

In NATO Marriage, Erdoğan (Turkey’s Putin) Flirts with Putin

Photo by Pool photo by Alexei Nikolsky

Another more devious game would be that Erdoğan might even be seeking to court Russian favor; if Erdoğan is not delusional, he has to realize his increasing authoritarianism may very well eventually earn Turkey an expulsion from NATO, at which U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry recently hinted.  The Turkish president is already making nice with Putin even after Russo-Turkish relations reached a nadir late last year when Turkey shot down a Russian combat jet after a series of repeated Russian violations of Turkish airspace on the Syrian border.  It should not go unnoticed that the pilots who shot down Russia’s jet were arrested shortly after the coup for allegedly being part of it, with the arrests announced after Putin had earlier quite forcefully condemned the attempted coup and had personally called Erdoğan to offer his support.  Perhaps this was a quid pro quo that lay the ground for their August in-person meeting, in which both leaders signaled the beginning of a new, more positive phase in their relationship.  Perhaps Erdoğan is warming up to another potential ally—one very similar to himself—in Putin, even as he distances himself from current allies that are very dissimilar to him.  In in the next few years, if I read that Turkey has left or been forced out of NATO and joined a military alliance with Russia (which would only be a dream come true for Russia on so many levels), I will hardly be surprised.

Make no mistake, Erdoğan is Turkey’s Putin now, just more impatient and without Putin’s relative charm and subtlety.  No wonder the two seem to be patching up their differences and coming together: they operate in very similar ways.

Conclusion: In Erdoğan, A Tyranny Orwell Would Recognize All Too Well (and One that Is Here to Stay)

Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images

For now, Turkey is clearly becoming a repressive society, and the moment of the failed coup marks a decidedly rapid increase in Erdoğan’s program of centralization, consolidation, repression, Islamicization, and anti-Westernism/anti-Americanism.

Last year, in between the two Turkish parliamentary elections, we saw how professional official investigators were stating certain attacks were very likely ISIS attacks, while Erdoğan claimed they could be the work of Kurds and/or the Assad regime, twisting the facts to suit his own end and contradicting his own officials in his own government.  I would not at all be shocked if it turns out those law enforcement officials have just been purged, and Erdoğan will almost surely make sure that now, any government official will speak one thing and one thing only: whatever Erdoğan wants to be said.  Now, when there are terrorism attacks in Turkey, the world should not give much credibility to whatever information comes from official Turkish channels; those interested in the truth are gone from the picture, because those remaining, as the propaganda slogans remind us, are there to serve Erdoğan, because his will is the people’s will and those who don’t agree, who are not on board with the program, are traitors and terrorists.  Just like Gülen and anyone who even sympathizes with them…

It seems again appropriate to return to Orwell, who was only too well aware that dictators will do everything they can to control language.  In his famous “Politics and the English Language” essay, Orwell remarked that “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”  This purge shows that that is exactly what Erdoğan is doing, and I, for one, won’t be trusting much of anything the Turkish government says from now on because I know I won’t be hearing the words of professional public servants, but acolytes to Erdoğan’s increasingly Stalinist-like cult, all while Erdoğan seeks to eclipse Atatürk both as the preeminent modern Turk and and as the embodiment of Turkey itself, a Turkey he is now successfully remaking in his autocratic, religious image, pushing aside the democratic, secular values of Atatürk.

Orwell realized that systematically attacking basic freedoms of expression was, in effect, a demonstration of contempt for rights and people in general when he wrote that “Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.”

Before the outcome was certain, the coup attempt was, I noted at the time, the definitive battle for the soul of Turkey and its future.  Well, for the foreseeable future, that soul and that future will be embodied by Erdoğan and be devoid of most democratic norms, respect for human and minority rights, a free press, and honest political discourse.  We seem more and more surely to be approaching a point where it will be impossible to say otherwise about Turkey, if we have not already arrived at or passed by it.

Long after the Roman Republic’s political functionality and integrity had crumbled, Caesar was said to have remarked that “The Republic is nothing—just a name, without substance or form” (Seutonius Lives of the Caesars The Deified Julius Caesar 77).  Today, the substance and form of Turkey’s republic is in dire straits, the prospects for its survival quite poor, its future for anyone concerned with democracy bleak; such is Erdoğan’s Turkey.  For me, Erdoğan’s resilience and increasing power was one of the big stories of 2015, and I noted at the beginning of the year that Turkey’s would-be sultan was poised to be quite a problem in 2016, and thus far, he has certainly exceeded even my grim expectations.

See related article: The Definitive Battle for the Soul of Turkey & Its Future Is Happening Right Now & It Is This Coup

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