Unbridled state power

Esen Uslu reports on the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt

Backdrop: Istanbul’s Martyrs Bridge

A few days after the mass demonstration called to mark the end of the march led by Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in Istanbul,1 president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) attempted to outdo it with a commemoration of the first anniversary of the failed coup. The whole apparatus of the government and Istanbul municipality was put to work. The suspension bridge spanning the Bosphorus was selected as the backdrop and Erdogan’s speech the intended highlight.

During the day there was a special session of parliament. Kiliçdaroglu had declared that the CHP would participate in all events organised to commemorate those killed resisting the attempted coup (the bridge has been renamed the July 15 Martyrs Bridge). However, he attacked the AKP’s actions since the attempted coup, claiming that the prime culprit lives in the “palace” - referring to the recently built presidential palace in Ankara. After this speech all invitations to other parties for commemoration events were withdrawn.

However, despite all the efforts of the state, the crowd was nowhere near as large as Erdogan had hoped, and his frustration was reflected in his speech, when he reiterated his commitment to the reintroduction of death penalty. The phrase he employed was that he would “chop off the heads of those traitors”. On the other hand, he attempted to portray the Turkish state as liberal and democratic by telling an anecdote: after the attempted coup some representatives of the ‘international community’ had asked what the fate of those who had participated would be. His reply was that nobody in Turkey was buried in an unmarked grave. Apparently that was enough to prove his point.

He used the occasion to attack Kiliçdaroglu by claiming he was marching in step with the Islamist “terrorist” movement led by Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan added that the AKP government and the state had displayed their democratic credentials by allowing the Ankara-to-Istanbul protest to go ahead unhindered. But he added that justice should not be sought on the streets: it is handed down to us by the “independent” courts.

He criticised Ahmet Türk, the former MP of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who had been released from prison, where he was remanded on charges of terrorism, on the grounds of old age and ill health. Yet he had made a brief appearance at Kiliçdaroglu’s march to show his support. Erdogan claimed this meant that Türk had lied about his health - even though his medical report had been provided by a state hospital.

This led the president on to another court case, where a former officer, who was on trial for participating in the attempted coup, arrived from prison wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Hero”. The judges stopped the session and forced him to change his attire. Erdogan suggested that from now on all prisoners should wear uniforms similar to the orange jump-suits worn by Guantanamo inmates.

Of course, that suggestion evoked Islamic State, which has forced its hostages to dress in a similar way for its propaganda videos. It also brought to mind the military courts and torture chamber prisons of the military junta of the 1980s, where attempts to make political prisoners wear uniforms provoked naked court protests and resulted in severe beatings. In the end the junta retreated.

Everywhere

The organisers of the commemorative events used every available channel. At mosques across Istanbul, special Salawat prayers were broadcast via loudspeakers attached to the minarets for hours on end. The Salawat is only supposed to be chanted as a call to noon prayers before a funeral ceremony, but now, it seems, it has become the AKP means of making use of Islamic sentiment for political purposes.

And, most striking of all, throughout the evening anybody who attempted to make or receive a call on their mobile phone was first treated to a recording of Erdogan commemorating the “martyrs of July 15” before the call could begin. All mobile companies had their arms twisted into providing this ‘service’ to their customers.

The photos of fearful soldiers used in the posters advertising the meetings were later found out to have been plagiarised from US military sources and Photoshopped to falsely represent those who took part in the attempted coup. There are ample gruesome photos taken during the coup, so why the AKP propaganda machine opted for such trickery baffled many.

Erdogan obviously believes he has artistic prowess, as video clips of him reciting patriotic poems were repeatedly shown on state TV. But, when it came to his actual speeches, they were full of unspecified bogeymen. He seemed to be accusing Turkey’s European and North American allies in Nato, without saying so directly, of being the puppet masters controlling both Gülen and Kurdish guerrillas. Such convoluted claims where nothing specific is said seems to have become a habit in Turkey. In this way Erdogan hopes to avoid further embarrassment in the international arena, even though everybody knows who he is talking about.

The only open criticism made of the US is for supplying arms and ammunition to Kurdish forces in Syria for the operation to liberate Raqqa from IS. Erdogan claims such supplies had been passing over the Turkey-Syria border despite hundreds of miles of state-of-the-art imaging equipment and five-storey-high watch towers.

State of emergency

Amid all this hullabaloo, in parliament MPs from the AKP, supported by the far-right MHP, passed without too much discussion the government’s proposal to extend the state of emergency for another three months. This enables the government to avoid the niceties of parliament and rule by decree.

And the judiciary has taken its lead from the AKP: 12 human rights activists, including the director of Amnesty International in Turkey and a member of its executive, were arrested during a meeting they were holding near Istanbul. They were kept incommunicado for 12 days and brought before a special court in the early hours. Eight of them were remanded in custody on charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation. Which organisation was not mentioned on the charge-sheet. That is how the judiciary in Turkey works nowadays - what was normal in Kurdistan now applies across the whole country.

This unbridled state power is, of course, not sufficient to maintain Erdogan’s control in the long term. Meanwhile alarm calls are sounding in relation to the economy. Budget overspending and the extension of state credits to small and medium businesses before the April constitutional referendum for a while seemed to ease hardship. However, now the AKP insists that the budget deficit, together with reserves of foreign currency and gold, must be kept under control in order to avoid a crash. This will mean a new austerity package which will be highly unpopular.

The ‘hot money’ created by the quantitative easing policies of leading economies can no longer be used to support the ‘spend and hope for the best’ economic policies of AKP. The only state still committed to support the AKP’s economic policy seems to be Qatar, which is facing its own serious difficulties.

So there is not much room to manoeuvre for Erdogan. It is all or bust. However, the opposition still seems unable to take any real advantage of his troubles.

Postscript

As I write, on Tuesday July18, Istanbul has suffered a deluge - the post-truth society got another wake-up call. Despite all the skyscrapers and gated residential developments, all the roads, tunnels and bridges built using cheap credit and held up as great achievements of the AKP, today the failings of Turkey’s infrastructure are all too apparent. The roads and tunnels opened to great fanfare have been flooded, as has the underground. Roads now look more like rivers. There have been power cuts, while internet and cable networks stopped working. And all this happened despite prior warnings by the meteorological services. The municipalities under AKP control have been exposed as miserable failures, while government representatives could only resort to hapless - and hopeless – speeches.

Notes

1. See ‘Kemalists seize the moment’ Weekly Worker July 13.