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No end in sight for Erdogan's purges after referendum

The Turkish government’s narrow victory in last month’s constitutional referendum has emboldened new purges, affecting hundreds of police officers, academics and civilians.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey April 16, 2017. Picture taken April 16, 2017. REUTERS/Murad Sezerm - RTS12L9A

On a flight back from India this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed the West for criticizing Turkey’s state of emergency, in place since the botched coup attempt in July 2016. Speaking to journalists accompanying him on the trip, he said, “The West, which fails to see the state of emergency in France, is attempting to criticize a process that we are carrying out in tranquility. What has the state of emergency in Turkey done? Has it taken away anything from [businesspeople]? Has it affected businesses?” He argued that without the state of emergency, the authorities would have failed to have struggled as well as they have against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara calls the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO) and holds responsible for the coup attempt.

Given the suspension of basic rights and freedoms, associating the state of emergency with social peace is simply ironic, not to mention that Ankara is flouting even the constitutional limits for the use of emergency-rule powers. For Turkish citizens of a certain age, today’s atmosphere evokes the scary climate of the military rule after the 1980 coup, when the campaign of suppression was called a “tranquility operation.”

Erdogan may claim the state of emergency is conducted in peace, and even without harming anyone, but the toll is out there as plain as day. On April 2, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu offered the following summary of the crackdown on Gulenists or dissidents accused of being such: “So far, 113,260 people have been detained in connection with FETO. The number of those who remain arrested today is 47,155, which is a significant number. There are 41,499 people who have been released on the condition of judicial control, while 23,861 others have been freed (without any further action). Those arrested include 10,732 police officers, 7,463 soldiers, including 168 generals, 2,575 judges and prosecutors, 26,177 civilians and 208 administrative chiefs.”

This, however, is only a partial picture that omits the toll of the crackdown on the Kurds. The state of emergency has seen the detention of some 9,000 members of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), about 3,000 of whom remain behind bars. Eleven HDP lawmakers, including both of the party’s co-chairs, are also in jail. The HDP’s sister party, the Democratic Regions Party, which runs 103 local administrations in the mainly Kurdish southeast, has seen 84 of those municipalities handed over to government-appointed trustees and 89 of its co-mayors arrested.

Scores of academics who had signed declarations criticizing Ankara’s Kurdish policies have been expelled from universities across the country, while the number of gagged newspapers, magazines and internet sites is beyond counting.

So one thing is obvious: Those punished through emergency-rule instruments are not armed terrorist groups, as Erdogan claims, but members of civic society and political parties. In other words, the measures have targeted legitimate representative and civic structures, bypassing democracy and the law.

There is no doubt now that this chilling policy is a systematic one. Erdogan and the government got what they wanted from the April 16 referendum, and have shown no intention of softening or moderation in its aftermath. This is clearly manifested in the new waves of detentions and suspensions that have followed the vote.

On April 26, the authorities issued detention orders for 3,224 alleged Gulenists. Two days later, 9,000 police officers were suspended from duty on the same grounds. On May 2, the government issued two legislative decrees to expel some 4,000 public employees, including 1,000 military officers and 485 academics, bringing the total to more than 102,000 expulsions since the state of emergency took effect.

The moves indicate that the government sees its narrow victory in the referendum as a vote of confidence for its authoritarian policies. This, in turn, represents the first convergence between the existing authoritarian practices and the aspired populist institutionalization.

One cannot help but wonder whether the government’s war on the Gulen community is a bottomless pit, a saga that will never end. The situation has come to resemble a two-way authoritarian trap. If the presence of Gulenists in the state is a threat to the rule of law, the ferocious and often arbitrary measures against them have become another.

No one can really tell where the truth lies exactly. If the Gulenists have really entrenched themselves to an extent that justifies this massive toll, Turkey does face a predicament that will be difficult to overcome. Alternately, if the Gulenists’ power is exaggerated and the government’s actions stem from a mix of concern, suspicion and a desire to consolidate power, Turkey faces an equally lasting problem. In either case, the blows to democracy are bound to produce the same outcome: perpetual suspicion, perpetual purges and therefore perpetual disregard of the law. The experience thus far shows that each new suspicion triggers a fresh wave of detentions and expulsions. This is so much so that some public servants, recruited to replace expelled Gulenists, have themselves faced suspension after a while.

Another alarming problem is that this atmosphere has spawned a self-spinning cogwheel that can function without political push. The onslaught on suspected Gulenists and PKK supporters has rested on tip-offs, assumptions and guesses rather than evidence and corroborated suspicion, creating a logic and a mentality of its own. All members of the state apparatus — prosecutors, judges, public functionaries and the bureaucrats drawing up the expulsion lists — are acting under the influence or the pressure of this atmosphere, sometimes as its executioners and sometimes as its victims. “The banality of evil” — Hannah Arendt’s famous concept on the normalization of human wickedness — is springing to life in Turkey, nourishing authoritarianism from inside the system.

This is also the reason for Turkey’s growing introversion and international alienation. The April 25 decision of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly to put Turkey on its watch list was precisely because of the rights violations and arbitrary rule that the state of emergency has produced.
The definition of freedom that Erdogan made earlier this year is perhaps the best illustration of the icy rift between Turkey and the West today. Referring to big infrastructure projects by his government, Erdogan said, “Hey West! Freedom is not [what you advocate]. Freedom goes through the Marmaray Tunnel. Freedom goes through the Eurasia Tunnel. Freedom goes through the Osmangazi Bridge.”

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