A year after failed coup, justice still looms in Turkey

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Simon Waldman is a visiting research fellow at King’s College in London. He is the co-author of The New Turkey and Its Discontents

Last week, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), led a march from Ankara to Istanbul (about 425 kilometres) under the banner “adalet”, Turkish for justice. He was protesting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party, which also features the word justice in its name – the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Justice is an important rallying cry in today’s Turkey. The trouble is, it means different things to different people.

Contrasting conceptions of justice loom over the country as it commemorates one year since last summer’s attempted coup. The perpetrators were a faction within the military loyal to Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish Islamic preacher. After the putsch was thwarted, the government declared a state of emergency. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people were either arrested or fired. They include soldiers, police officers, judges, school teachers, university professors and civil service workers.

Turkey’s opposition considers the crackdowns a purge of the government’s opponents, but for Mr. Erdogan and the AKP government, justice is being served.

To understand the meaning of justice for Mr. Erdogan and the AKP, one needs to set aside notions such as equality, fairness or the rule of law. Instead, they seek to right past wrongs and reshape Turkish society to represent the interests of its conservative and religious support base, for decades marginalized and suppressed.

The establishment in 1923 of the modern Republic of Turkey took place under the leadership of decorated general Mustafa Kemal. Later adopting the surname Ataturk, meaning father of the Turks, he built a secular state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Outward expressions of Islamic identity were considered an affront to the new modern and “civilized” state. A secular elite emerged while the military became the self-styled guardians of Ataturk’s vision.

The armed forces intervened in 1960, 1971 and 1980 against governments not to its liking. In 1997, there was a “postmodern coup.” The military staged a behind-the-scenes intervention against the openly Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party, from which founding members of the AKP, Mr. Erdogan included, were members.

This is why Mr. Erdogan and the AKP see coup plots, some real and some imagined, everywhere they turn. In 2008, the AKP was brought before the constitutional court charged with violating secularism. Narrowly escaping a ban, the AKP was heavily fined instead. That was real. From 2008 onwards, there were the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations alleging a clandestine alliance between military factions and members of civil society to ouster the AKP government. These were imagined; the convictions were later overturned after irregularities were found. They were also said to be Gulenist fabrications. Mr. Erdogan even considered the 2013 Gezi Park protests a coup attempt.

Regardless, last summer’s events were all too real. This time, Mr. Erdogan, who called it a “gift from God,” seized the opportunity to rid himself of political competition and then spearhead a referendum to gain additional power. He won by the slimmest of margins in an election marred by irregularities and an unfree campaigning environment. Regardless, he will now seek to change Turkey socially, politically and culturally, or at least try.

But Mr. Erdogan’s supporters only consist of half the country. What about the other half? From their perspective, even before last year’s events, AKP rule only brought more cronyism, repression and authoritarianism. Arrests of writers, intellectuals and critics were commonplace. Turkey was considered the world’s largest prison for journalists. But since the post-coup state of emergency, repression has become an everyday reality.

Until 2013, the AKP were bedfellows of the Gulen movement, even encouraging and facilitating Gulenist infiltration into state apparatus. When the sons-in-law of two AKP politicians were arrested, they were soon released, highlighting the extent of nepotism in the country. Surely, if the government was serious about justice it would have taken more care separating the innocent from the guilty, and not absolving itself?

Instead it tries to crush its opposition. Leading members of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish and liberal party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), such as Selahattin Demirtas were arrested and remain detained under politically motivated charges related to terrorism, and CHP lawmaker Enis Berberoglu was jailed under spurious espionage charges.

As Turkey commemorates the attempted coup, the lofty goal of justice is as far away as ever.



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