Turkey is gearing up for a big spectacle on July 15, the anniversary of last year’s failed coup. As part of ceremonies planned by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), parliament will hold a special session and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will address the nation. Then at midnight, sala prayers will ring out from mosques across the country and people will take to the streets, re-enacting an episode from the night of the botched coup. What to make of this commemoration program? Is it simply a tribute to democratic resistance against military coups in Turkey or the harbinger of an AKP-sponsored ideological celebration? The question is closely related to the key trends swaying Turkey today, hence the clues to the answer lie in the big picture of national politics.
The putsch, blamed on followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, the AKP’s former ally, has dominated almost all political developments and debates in Turkey over the past year. It has deeply affected the balances of the system and reshaped the government’s ideological narrative. The most crucial element of the coup aftermath is, no doubt, the purges at public institutions and universities and in the media and the business community; the purges have become a continuous process and are still ongoing.
The consequences are already plain as day. Over the past year, Turkey has been under a double pressure of authoritarianism, a combined product of the dangers of Gulenist entrenchment in the state and the arbitrary measures employed against them. Officials' assumptions concerning the continuing existence and influence of Gulenist groups have made the government’s policy of “constant risk, constant alarm and constant measures” an absolute one. The alarmism has resulted in a politicized judiciary acting on assumptions based on intelligence information and political reasoning rather than evidence, grave rights violations and a glaring slide into authoritarianism.
This, however, is only one side of the post-coup developments. In a second aspect, the government used the putsch as an opportunity — or even made it the start of a new era — to alter its rhetoric and all the settings of the political system. As such, the July 15 coup attempt became a milestone in deepening and institutionalizing an authoritarian, populist rule, marked by a new government narrative of “an integrated and combined threat” in which Gulenists, leftists, liberals, Kurds and various oppositional quarters are lumped together and portrayed as partners in subversive activities.
It was in this framework that Erdogan’s government expanded its purges and authoritarian policies over the past year. Opposition groups, the news media, the Kurdish movement, academia, intellectuals and all realms of freedom have suffered from this all-encompassing, ongoing campaign. The most telling sign perhaps is the state of emergency, declared five days after the coup attempt and extended ever since to become a permanent form of rule.
Hence, one could speak of two intertwined July 15s today — the one of the Gulenists and the putschists and the one of the government.
The government’s July 15 points to a grand ideological construct, in which Erdogan, like many autocratic and populist leaders, is redefining “the nation” as those who are close and loyal to him, while seeing the rest as near internal enemies. His ideal new order rests on a paternalistic political structure with power concentrated in few hands, an obedient society and a security-centered system.
In this context, few would be surprised if the anniversary of the putsch turns into an AKP-centered show of strength that upholds all policies after the coup attempt and sanctifies the new ideological construct. All preparations point to such a prospect. In October, July 15 was declared an official holiday as Martyrs and Democracy Day, with the martyrs being the security forces and ordinary Turks who were killed by the putschists. Now, the time has come for the official commemoration of the new official holiday.
The program includes a special parliamentary session that will be attended by Erdogan as well as foreign diplomats and ordinary citizens on the afternoon of July 15. At 2:32 a.m. on July 16, the time the first bomb dropped on parliament, a high-tech projection show, featuring images from the coup attempt, will take place outside parliament’s ceremonial gate, and Erdogan, scheduled to shuttle between ceremonies in Ankara and Istanbul, will make a speech there.
Ample details on the AKP’s preparations came from Muharrem Goksel, the party’s provincial head in the northern city of Samsun. In an interview in early July, Goksel offered the following overview: “On [anniversary day], we will organize certain programs, of which we have been notified by the [party’s] headquarters. … The program will start on the morning of July 11 with visits to all martyr cemeteries in [all of Turkey’s] 81 provinces. [Islamic memorial services] will take place during noon prayers in every city. There will be photo exhibitions. The business community will organize meetings as well, and the artistic and sports communities will deliver messages. On July 15, there will be a call for a Democracy Watch. Following the special session in parliament [in the afternoon], the president will go to Istanbul to attend the commemoration ceremony on the July 15 Martyrs Bridge. … There will be Quran recitations and shows. At 10:45 p.m., President Erdogan will address the people. Then, at [12:26] a.m., sala prayers will be recited [from mosques] in all cities. With those sala prayers, our people will go to the squares again. We will pack all squares in those hours.”
On July 9, Turkey’s main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu completed a 25-day, 432-kilometer (268-mile) trek from Ankara to Istanbul to protest the crackdown after the coup attempt. Kilicdaroglu’s “March for Justice,” which ended with a huge rally, and Erdogan’s July 15 commemorations a few days later will paint a striking picture of the two opposing currents in polarized Turkey today.