Earlier this month, Turkey experienced a surprising coup attempt that shocked the country and international community. A week later, the aftermath is still unfolding. However current developments highlight that while Turkey survived the coup attempt, democracy there is still under threat.
More than a week after the attempted coup, things are looking bleak for democracy in Turkey. More than 10,000 people have been arrested. The bulk of those arrested are soldiers, including roughly half of all of Turkey’s sitting generals. Furthermore, over 2,000 of those arrested are judges and prosecutors along with more than 600 civilians.
Days after the attempted coup the government demanded the resignation of all university deans in the country, suspended 15,000 educational workers and revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers, shuttering most private schools in the country and crippling many state schools as well. The day after the academic suspension announcement, the government placed a blanket travel ban on all academics from leaving Turkey. All told, more than 37,500 civil servants and police officers have been suspended and more than 11,000 passports cancelled, mostly belonging to federal employees.
Journalists and media outlets have also been targeted, with the licenses of 24 news and radio outlets cancelled and at least 42 arrest warrants issued for journalists. As Turkish journalist Can Dündar pointed out in The Guardian, this is the largest purge in Turkey’s troubled history and the numbers continue to grow by the day.
Beyond the arrests and suspensions there are also accusations by Amnesty International of beatings, rape and torture of those detained based on testimony by lawyers and medical personnel working in the numerous formal and informal detention facilities now operating throughout the country.
Late last week Turkey declared a state of emergency that allows the government to rule by decree for the next three months and partially suspended their participation under the European Convention on Human Rights. In the current political climate, which seems more focused on eliminating political opposition than providing security, there are fears that the human rights situation may grow more dire as the government contemplates bringing back the death penalty, previously abolished in 2002.
In many ways, none of this is particularly new or shocking. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well known for his lack of tolerance of political opposition, demonstrated in recent years with the harsh crackdown on the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the renewed conflict with Turkish Kurds in the country’s east, as well as his quest for greater power.
Despite the fact that Turkey is a parliamentary democracy with a largely symbolic presidency, when term limits forced Erdogan to step down as leader of the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and the position of prime minister in 2014, he continued to run for the presidency and then engaged in backstage political maneuvering to push Turkey more towards a formal presidential system.
The heavy-handed crackdowns on the political opposition, the conflict with the Kurds and poor security that has led to several high profile bombings by ISIS, an influx of nearly 3 million refugees and a slowing economy have all led to a severe decline in Erdogan’s approval rating. But as his numbers went down, so did his stronghold on power.
Now, in the wake of the coup attempt that nearly drove him from power, Erdogan has called the uprising a “gift from God” that gives him additional tools needed for him to create a “new Turkey.” In the firing line is not just the military but also Turkey’s traditionally secular political system. Even as opposition groups and AKP supporters gathered in Istanbul’s Taksim Square over the weekend to denounce the coup attempt, many worry that the loyalty demonstrated towards the government by the opposition will soon be forgotten as the purges continue.
Meanwhile the political troubles in Turkey seem to be pushing more refugees to make the dangerous crossing across the Aegean. After a significant decrease in refugee crossings following the implementation of the EU-Turkey migration deal, since the attempted coup there has been a new surge of those making the crossing. The migration deal itself is back under fire as the EU contemplates available measures to condemn the ongoing human rights abuses, leaving little reason for Erdogan to hold up his side of the bargain and prevent the flow of refugees to Europe. Amidst all this, Syrian and Iraqi refugees living in Turkey find themselves stuck in the middle – scared of what may come but with nowhere else to go.
All of this points to a volatile situation where things are likely to get worse before they get better. One of the fundamental tenants of democracy is that no elected government should fear a military takeover. That tenant was violated in Turkey on July 15. But another central tenant of democracy is that the government is subject to checks and balances, and cannot run wild over its citizens.
The inspiring images of ordinary citizens out in the streets to protest the attempted coup have been replaced with images of handcuffed detainees stripped to their underwear and packed into a gymnasium. Although democracy in Turkey survived the coup attempt, it is still not certain that it will survive the aftermath.