The Purge After the Coup
Turkey's political parties were united in opposing the attempted military coup -- but Erdogan's attempt to use the incident to tighten his control on the state could tear them apart again.
ANKARA — Citizens facing down tanks, retaking their streets and bridges, arresting rogue soldiers: The images of Turkey’s failed coup flew around the world over the weekend. Thousands of Turks had become the icons of civil resistance, heeding President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call to go out into the streets and resist the military’s takeover.
Erdogan, however, quickly went to work translating this extraordinary triumph of democracy into a political victory for himself. As the president’s supporters celebrated in the streets on Saturday night, his opponents were already being purged from Turkey’s armed forces and state institutions.
The numbers, already staggeringly high, increased with each passing hour on Monday. By sunset, more than 6,000 military personnel were in custody, and 755 members of the judiciary had been detained, including two Constitutional Court judges. Almost one-third of Turkey’s generals and admirals — 103 in total — have been arrested.
Some 9,000 police officers, 2,745 judges, 1,500 Finance Ministry staff, 15,200 Education Ministry staff, and 8,777 Interior Ministry employees — among them 30 of Turkey’s 81 provincial governors — were also suspended.
Human rights groups warned against a witch hunt as 20 news portals critical of the government were shut down. Government officials admitted that the numbers appeared excessive but insisted they were necessary to root out supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric accused of orchestrating the coup attempt. “I understand that the numbers seem excessive, but right now, this is about preventing the next wave of attacks against civilians and government buildings,” an official told reporters on Monday.
Gulen’s secretive movement is believed to have infiltrated government institutions and Turkey’s security forces over the years.
At a funeral for victims of Friday night’s events, Erdogan promised mourners he would “cleanse” the country of the Gulenist “virus.” But over the weekend, world leaders who had lauded Turkey’s unswerving commitment to democracy reacted with alarm at the vast scope of the crackdown.
“We will certainly support bringing the perpetrators of the coup to justice, but we also caution against a reach that goes well beyond that,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.
The Turkish opposition, too, watched the unfolding purge with growing unease. When bombs fell on the parliament in Ankara, the four major parties set aside their differences and condemned the plotters in a rare joint statement.
The declaration was drafted in the parliament’s basement, as fighter jets dropped bombs in front of the entrance, killing four policemen. The opposition lobby was showered with debris and shattered glass when more bombs struck the building’s roof.
“We were holding an informal session in parliament, [and] my son was waiting in the lobby,” said Oktay Vural, a deputy for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). “When the second bomb struck, I rushed there to find him covered with rubble but thankfully unhurt.”
As Vural and roughly 100 other parliamentarians sought shelter in the basement, some prayed, some spoke to their loved ones; others phoned television stations to call on citizens to resist. Several parliamentarians with medical training administered first aid to the injured.
After calm had been restored on Saturday, parliament reconvened in an emergency session. Many hoped that the polarized country would find common ground in defending its democracy — but the parties’ united front was already beginning to fray the following afternoon.
Turkish opposition leaders argued that Erdogan’s purges of the military and judiciary will strengthen the president’s hold on power, rather than Turkey’s democracy. “The idea of unity is nice, but the president is trying to benefit from this disaster,” said Mehmet Bekaroglu, a deputy for the staunchly secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP).
It was Erdogan’s jubilant supporters who filled the streets after the president had called on them to demonstrate each night in the days since Friday’s attempted coup. Although equally opposed to the coup, Turkey’s liberals and secularists remained at home, watching warily as a sea of people carrying the national flag and chanting religious slogans flooded Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Ankara’s central Kizilay district.
“Being against coups is not enough to defend democracy. There’s a litmus test,” said Ayhan Bilgen, a deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “Assume we or the CHP were in office. If a religious group attempted a coup, would these people come out to defend democracy? It’s uncertain whether they are defending democracy or their own grip on power.”
The protesters have repeatedly called for the death penalty to be reintroduced, and on Monday, Erdogan announced he would approve legislation from parliament doing so. European leaders reacted with horror: German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that this would be the death knell for Turkey’s already moribund bid to join the European Union.
Meanwhile, deputies from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were confident that the coup’s failure would bolster public support for Erdogan’s long-standing ambition to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with a powerful executive presidency.
“If there [were] a referendum today, we would win with 70 to 80 percent,” said Celalettin Guvenc, an AKP lawmaker and the head of the government’s international affairs committee. “We want courageous decisions to be made in a fast way. A powerful president can do this.”
Additional reporting by Tugba Tekerek.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images