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Is a coup really looming in Turkey?

Amid Turkey’s deepening economic woes and the COVID-19 pandemic, the main opposition has come into the government's crosshairs for allegedly inciting a military coup, which is no coincidence.
A picture of main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) Istanbul chair Canan Kaftancioglu is displayed on a screen outside the Justice Palace, the Caglayan courthouse, in Istanbul, Turkey, September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC1B167BFEA0

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate Turkey’s economic turmoil, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has found itself accused of coup incitement in a fresh onslaught by government members and crony media led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The harshest accusation came May 4 from the top seat of power after a Cabinet meeting that Erdogan chaired via video conference from his presidential mansion in Istanbul, where he has been staying during the pandemic. Erdogan was expected to focus on the government’s “normalization” plan to ease pandemic restrictions, but instead he spent a good part of his speech raging at the main opposition.

The CHP, Erdogan said, represents “a fascist mindset that cannot stomach the supremacy of the national will, democracy, justice and elections and is still yearning and burning for tutelage, coups and juntas.” The CHP’s actions are guided by “a desire to usurp the country’s administration through a coup rather than coming to power through democratic means,” he charged, adding, “This is what the picture tells us when you sum up the statements of CHP leaders in the past week alone.”

While the president did not name the CHP leaders he slammed, a review of recent CHP statements turned up no remark to corroborate his claim that the party is seeking to “usurp the country’s administration through a coup.” 

Yet judging from the claims of the government’s mouthpieces and media, a statement revealing “a yearning for a coup” does exist and it belongs to Canan Kaftancioglu, the CHP chairwoman for Istanbul. In April 29 remarks to Halk TV, an opposition channel close to the CHP, Kaftancioglu said she expected “a government change and even a change in the [governance] system through early elections or some other way in the coming period.”

According to the government’s charges, spread aggressively by social media accounts and columnists under its control, Kaftancioglu’s mention of “some other way” in which the government could go was “an insinuation of a coup.” So it seems that it was Kaftancioglu’s remarks that Erdogan alluded to in accusing the CHP.

Amid the vitriol, Kaftancioglu went on air May 8 to clarify her remarks. She explained her comments were in response to a question on whether she expected early elections and her remark that the government could go in “some other way” referred to election alternatives other than early polls. “I said that the government will go in early or other elections, be they early, normal or snap polls, and that I’m already foreseeing a system change,” she said.

Yet the Radio and Television Supreme Council, which oversees broadcasters and penalizes violations of broadcasting rules, decided that Kaftancioglu had “incited the public to hatred and enmity” by saying the government would go through “early elections or some other way” and used that as a pretext to slap a five-week ban on the program in which she made the remarks. Also, the council — controlled by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party — fined Halk TV 5% of its monthly revenue.

Obviously, government quarters are at pains to present clear and concrete evidence that the CHP is seeking to provoke a coup. So in the absence of objective facts, what the government is trying to offer as proof is its own emotional state.

Accusing the CHP of putschism serves the purpose of creating a climate of coup fear. To convince its grassroots that its perception of a “coup preparation” is real and thus the purported plot is genuine, the government backs up its propaganda with a very intense emotional mood. Drawing on this “emotional authenticity,” it aims to ensure that the AKP base sustains its support despite the economic crisis, convinced that the “coup preparation” is real.

A striking manifestation of this “emotional state” was put on display May 3 during a talk show on the pro-government Ulke TV that outshined the performance of Erdogan and all other government officials.

Alluding to the “coup preparations,” the host of the live show, Esra Elonu, asked her guest Sevda Noyan — an obscure figure presented as a “writer” — what she thought about “the threats” to the government. Noyan grumbled how she and others failed to satiate their rage against the putschists during the suppression of the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Then, referring to any fresh putsch, she said, “Don’t get me wrong, get me right — our family can carry off 50 people. We are very well equipped, materially and spiritually. We stand by our leader and will never forgo him. They should watch their steps. There are still several of them in our condo. My list is ready.”

In other words, Noyan was insinuating that she and her family had weapons and were psychologically prepared to use them. Erdogan was the leader she referred to. And the “list” apparently meant they had already decided who they would kill.

Equally alarming was the implicit approval that Noyan’s praise of violence received from the program’s host. After Noyan warned “the putschists” to “watch their steps,” Elonu added they should do so for “all their four feet.” 

As a public outcry over the program grew, Ulke TV issued an apology May 9, conceding that Noyan’s remarks went against its broadcasting principles, but kept mum on the approval of the host.

Unlike those scrambling to find “coup hints” in statements that have nothing to do with coup incitement, things are much easier for those who claim to see the coup coming in their dreams. And since they are the sheikhs of religious orders, whose disciples attribute deep meanings to their leaders’ dreams, they are in a good position to fan the climate of coup fear.

Ahmet Mahmut Unlu — a popular Muslim televangelist better known as the “Cloaked Ahmet Hodja” — made headlines May 11 after warning of a coup on a YouTube channel. “There is a coup danger. I’ve seen dreams — the danger exists,” he said. Recounting his dreams, he said, “I was stopped, taken off [from my car] and asked for my identity — a coup, God forbid.” And he warned that the danger this time did not come from the Gulenists as in the 2016 coup attempt.

Nourishing a climate of coup fear could serve the government’s interests in several ways. The first is to lay a legitimate ground for a more authoritarian rule against the prospect of a galvanized popular opposition in the face of deepening economic turmoil. Another likely objective is to invigorate the government’s grassroots, which the economic crisis has weakened, and rally them around Erdogan by the way of polarization and coup fears.

A fictitious coup threat could be used also to defer demands for political change that might develop among the populace.

Finally, delegitimizing and suppressing the CHP before calling early elections could be another calculation behind the fanning of coup fears.

Yet whatever the plans of the Erdogan government are, its coup accusations against the main opposition appear highly unlikely to create the desired impact.

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