No let-up in purge

A grand national coalition is part of Erdoğan’s ‘godsent opportunity’, writes Esen Uslu

Aspiring dictator

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to dismantle some of the age-old institutions of the state in order to clear the way for the adoption of absolutist powers has been accelerated by the failure of the Gülenist junta’s attempted military coup on July 15.

One of his targets has been the entrenched opposition from the judiciary, which has blocked many of his initiatives. Since late 2014 Erdogan has put in motion a series of ‘reforms’, increasing his control over the body which appoints and oversees the promotion of judges and prosecutors. They also strengthened his influence over the criminal, civil and administrative appeal courts, as well as specially empowered criminal courts dealing with ‘terrorism’ cases. The president was also able to remove many of his suspected opponents.

He had used the pretext that Alavis were enjoying “a built-in power” in some high courts - music to the ears of his Islamist supporters. The same went for the accusation of a “rabid secular grouping in the courts”. And more recently he had turned his venom against the “the terrorist organisation” alleged to be lurking in Muhammed Fethullah Gülen’s “parallel state structures”, when some courts and state security forces had revealed illegal arms trafficking to the Islamist jihadists of Syria carried out by the MIT national intelligence agency.

Despite all those pretexts, his sackings had been only moderately successful. The laws governing those courts were altered several times, and many people were replaced by those deemed more ‘trustworthy’. However, the problem was that the latter turned out to have their own agendas. Some of his appointees were ready to serve the military junta that attempted to take over power two weeks ago.

The ‘godsent opportunity’ of the failed coup has enabled Erdogan to instantly sack hundreds of judges and prosecutors, including in the high courts, without due process. Many of them have now been charged with aiding and abetting terrorism, either because of their collaboration with the junta or its alleged plans to offer them senior posts, had the coup been successful.

Cleansing the armed forces

However, Erdogan’s post-coup clear-out has gone far beyond the judiciary. The other obvious target was the armed forces themselves and here his retribution has been particularly heavy.

The army as a whole was badly hit during the attempted coup. The headquarters of the general chief of staff was occupied and its command structures were decimated. The chief of staff himself had been detained in an airbase near Ankara and had been pressured into becoming the figurehead of the coup. But he refused and was rescued from the plotters the next day. His aide de camp and other staff officers were involved in the coup, and helped the junta to detain commanding officers.

A four-star general commanding the second army, which has operational control of all armed forces taking part in the war in Kurdistan, has now been detained. Commanders of many critical commando units based in Kurdistan were also among those arrested. Even the two commanders of Turkish forces operating in Afghanistan as a Nato detachment and as a part of UN forces were detained while trying to escape to Qatar.

During the coup the airforce commander and many of his high-ranking officers were grabbed at a wedding ceremony by a helicopter assault squad. He refused to cooperate, but the junta enjoyed sufficient support in the airforce to ensure that fighter jets took part in the bombing of the grand national assembly - the parliament - as well as in mock attacks terrorising cities with sonic booms.

Helicopter gunships were used by the junta against pockets of resistance from the police and protestors. They ferried task forces to planned attack positions, and a special section was sent to collect Erdogan himself from his holiday resort. It failed to do so, but the 17 members of an elite commando unit responsible are still being sought in the hills along the Aegean coast.

The planes of the air tanker fleet based in Incirlik, the airfield housing the US base hosting airplanes of the so-called coalition against Islamic State, were used by the rebels for mid-air refuelling to keep them flying for six hours. Air transport planes, including the brand new Airbus Atlas 400, were used to ferry ammunition and commando units from bases in Kurdistan to the main cities. That plan was aborted, however, in the face of mounting opposition, but the fully loaded and equipped planes remained waiting for hours on the runways, blocked by heavy construction equipment, until the impasse was resolved.

In the end, planes loyal to the government bombed the runways of rebel airforce bases to render them inoperable, so the junta pilots could not use them for rearming their planes. There were unconfirmed reports of fighter jets engaged in dogfights, and several helicopters were shot down.

The navy did not fare any better. The commander in chief was detained until next day in one of the frigates sailing in the Marmara Sea, and as a result all principal naval bases and ships were able to take part in the coup. The whereabouts of 14 navy ships was unknown for several hours after the coup was suppressed, and the navy commander only appeared before the public two days later.

The gendarmerie headquarters, too, was a battle zone. While the commander was detained, high-ranking officers used it as a bastion of the coup attempt, and when the police attempted to raid the HQ the building was set alight. The rescued commander of the gendarmerie had a heart attack and was hospitalised, and a temporary appointment was made.

Erdogan’s sweeping response was to arrest first and ask questions later. A third of the armed forces’ top officers were detained, from four-star generals down to brigadiers, along with thousands from other ranks, including lieutenants and colonels. About 3,000 conscripted solders were also detained - 2,000 being released after interrogation. But those who took part in actions where firearms were used against the public were charged and remanded in custody.

Following the coup, cadet schools, military colleges and staff academies have been targeted one by one. Many of the commanding officers, teaching officers and students have been arrested. All told, more than 6,000 armed forces personnel were detained. About a thousand of them have already appeared before courts.

A set of structural changes had been long planned, but not yet implemented. Now is Erdogan’s opportunity. The chief of general staff will now be demoted, and attached to the ministry of defence, whereas before it was under the president of the republic. The gendarmerie forces will be removed from the control of the chief of staff, and its commanders attached to the ministry of internal affairs. These moves are expected to be combined with the creation of new civilian overseeing bodies.

The summer session of the supreme military council, which traditionally meets in late August to decide on promotions and appointments within the officer corps, shaping the command structure for the next period, will meet this weekend. It is expected to seal the fate of detained officers, most of whom will be dismissed.

The bureaucracy

Erdogan’s agenda in the bureaucracy was the same: get rid of all opposition in a broad, sweeping move. In the ministry of internal affairs, several governors in the provinces, as well as their deputies, were sacked, detained and charged. Several county administrators have been dismissed, along with inspectors working in several commissions.

The police force has also been hit: several police chiefs have been sacked and detained. Some of those who had been forced to retire in the past few months on the pretext of being supporters of the Gülen movement are alleged to have taken an active part in the coup. They too have been detained and charged, while almost a thousand police officers have been sacked.

However, the largest house-clearing was taken place in the ministry of national education, where 21,000 teachers have been sacked. Another 20,000 or so teachers who were employed in the private education system have lost their teaching licences. Hundreds of private or foundation schools have been closed down, their students transferred to state schools or other private schools that have remained operational.

The same goes for academia. Several private or foundation universities have been closed, among them the most prestigious ones. The fate of their academic staff is yet to be announced, but their students have been given the option to move to other universities. Several members of the academic staff have been sacked from state and private-sector universities, and some have been detained.

In the days after the attempted coup, the automatic departure system for electronic passports was stopped at international airports. Many flights were cancelled because of never-ending passport checks. Thousands of special passports issued to high-ranking state employees and their dependents were revoked, along with those given to civil servants on official duty abroad and diplomatic passports.

A similar move, albeit smaller in scale, is in operation in every ministry. Even some ambassadors and consuls were sacked by the ministry of foreign affairs. Today not a single civil servant or public employee feels secure. Their summer vacations have been cancelled, and those already away have been recalled.

As readers can see, state departments, agencies, ministries, etc have been rapidly dealt with, but the power base of Fethullah Gülen lies also in the private sector. A major banking corporation, Bank Asya, has already been taken under the control of the banking regulatory body, declared insolvent by the official receiver and closed down. Similarly lesser holding companies, trading houses and manufacturing companies are being shut. Also associations and foundations associated with the Gülen movement or acting as its front.

The declaration of a 90-day state of emergency has enabled the government to proceed without awaiting any legal sanction and no legal challenge can be made against such administrative decisions until the emergency period ends.

However, such a draconian measures are bound to provoke opposition. Erdogan is well aware of that fact and attempts to drum up popular support through a media campaign portraying himself and his government as the victims, and the masses who support him as heroic saviours. Huge demonstrations have taken place in the main squares of every large city, addressed by Erdogan himself in video recordings.

In order to attract the biggest possible crowds free transport, free meals and free entertainment were laid on. The most backward, vengeful instincts have been encouraged, with thousands chanting for the reintroduction of the death penalty by public hanging, along with measures such as the chemical castration of sex offenders.

Erdogan himself voices his support for those ideas, but informs people that any such measures would have to be properly debated in parliament. If parliament were to adopt them he as president would unhesitatingly approve, he says. His kowtowing to the anti-foreigner sentiments of conservative and religious sections of society is also evident, including in his repeated calls for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen from the US. Erdogan publicly states that any failure to comply with this request would call into question US sincerity. The implied message, easily understandable by his supporters, is that the US administration, or at least some influential sections of the US establishment, is responsible for encouraging “Gülen’s coup”. Another of his themes is the allegation that Christians and Jews took part in the coup to stop the rise of Islam in Turkey.

But the most important theme of all is the defence of the supremacy of the elected president and his government as an embodiment of the public will. An appeal to such ‘democracy’ reduced to that simplicity is quite sufficient to mobilise nationalist support. It has also helped support for a ‘grand national coalition’. Such a coalition, where all parliamentary parties participate in or support a government of ‘unity’ has been the dream of every tin-pot would-be dictator in Turkey. However, Erdogan has at least temporarily managed to create a semblance of such a coalition.

The MHP and CHP, the parties of racist and Kemalist reaction, were shell-shocked by the attempted coup. On the night it took place, the leaders of both parties stood firmly against the military junta, and asked any of their MPs who happened to be in Ankara to go to the Grand National Assembly to resist the army intervention. The leftwing pro-Kurdish HDP also stood against the junta and the day after the attempted coup a special session of parliament agreed a four-party declaration condemning the junta.

Erdogan indicated that the CHP and MHP would be rewarded if they cooperated with the government’s invocation of the state of emergency, and in fact only the HDP stood firmly against such measures. While the CHP leader stated that he opposed the legislation, the CHP parliamentary group was given a free vote and the measures were approved by 346 votes to 115.

Under the state of emergency non-approved assemblies and demonstrations are banned, but the CHP was allowed to stage a demonstration in Taksim Square in Istanbul - to which the unions were denied access on May Day. Dignitaries from Erdogan’s AKP party graced the podium during the CHP demonstration, while CHP speakers in general declared their support for the government, provided it ensured there was a ‘better dialogue’ between the parties represented in parliament.

The following day, Erdogan invited the representatives of the other parties, apart from the HDP, to a meeting at his brand new palace. The groundwork for his grand national coalition is already in place.

Worse to come

While Erdogan now seems more powerful than ever, the weapons he is employing are actually blunt and feeble. His rhetoric and the anti-junta sentiment of the masses may help veil their weaknesses, but he is aware of his own fragile position.

For example, all state institutions, including the Grand National Assembly itself, have dismissed staff accused of being Gülen supporters, but no politician has yet been targeted. It would be odd if the Gülen movement had successfully infiltrated all state departments, yet failed to gain any allies at all amongst MPs - including amongst its former partner, the AKP itself.

And who is to blame for not properly paying attention to such infiltration? Does this point to shortcomings in the policy of the AKP over the last 14 years? As one former top minister said, “I was stupid not to anticipate the junta, but I am not alone in such stupidity.”

These questions will continue to be asked, and the crisis of the regime looks set to continue. Part of that crisis lies in Kemalist ‘official ideology’, which has dominated the state for decades. It helps explain why the CHP is unable to stage any meaningful opposition to the AKP. The new, alternative ideology encompassing the AKP, Islamist politics and free-market capitalism is yet to be closely defined, although the failed coup might accelerate the creation of an anti-western, Islamist outlook merged with Turkish nationalism, as defined by Erdogan and co. Gülen-type moderate Islam, which worked hand in glove with the USA, seems to have lost its popularity. However, a replacement ideology has a long way to go before winning broad acceptance.

While the attempted coup revealed the split that has existed within society and the political establishment, along with the clay feet of the seemingly invincible AKP, what of the left? Unfortunately it is standing on the sidelines. Paralysed by the fear of many dark decades under another junta, it has been unable to stand firmly in defence of democracy by opposing both the ‘grand national coalition’ programme of the AKP as well as a new military coup.

Last weekend’s discussion on the left as to whether it should take part in the CHP rally clearly exposes its debilitating weakness. Where is the radical programme defending the interests of the oppressed and working class? The left does not even attempt to challenge the grand national coalition now being put together before our eyes.

While the government demonises the junta and the Gülen movement, it denied rebel soldiers killed in the attempted coup the right to any religious service. Some were buried unceremoniously in outcasts’ cemeteries (yes, large cities in Turkey have such facilities), while others were denied the right to be buried in municipal cemeteries at all - their families were forced to bury them on private agricultural land.

On the other hand, the funerals of “democracy martyrs” are constantly screened on every available TV channel. Memorials are being built, and public buildings are being renamed. However, there has not even been an official body count of the rebel soldiers. Amnesty International has reported that rebels who were captured were maltreated and subject to torture. Government-controlled TV channels seem proud to show detainees being beaten, forced to crawl on their stomachs, or stripped down to their pants and laying in stress positions.

These are clear indications that the AKP government is not there to heal the wounds and repair the splits. No, it claims that vengeance is theirs. However, we know that this attitude is in reality opening the way for yet another coup or even a civil war, whose ruthlessness will know no bounds. The semblance of grand national coalition is illusionary, and is bound to come crashing down.

Alas, the left is in no position to take advantage.