Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vengefully disproportionate response to the failed coup of July 15 is hardly surprising.
Given the authoritarian streak in his government, many had warned that he would capitalise on the opportunity to purge his enemies and critics. Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening now. Mr. Erdogan blames Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric, for the coup, though he has yet to furnish any evidence. But the government has already arrested, fired, suspended or served notice on about 58,000 people, largely Gulen supporters. Media groups are under pressure not to carry reports critical of the President. A three-month state of emergency declared last week gives Mr. Erdogan sweeping powers; one of the first presidential decrees was to close down institutions linked to Mr. Gulen. Given the depth and breadth of the crackdown, Turks must wonder whether this is the kind of democracy they wanted restored when they risked their lives on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul on July 15 and 16 in fighting back the coup-plotters.
The failed coup was a chance for Mr. Erdogan to genuinely explore the reasons that led to the military revolt and take steps to address systemic failures. It was also an opportunity to strengthen democratic institutions and address the concerns about his dictatorial policies, and the threats to constitutional secularism, one of the founding principles of modern Turkey. Instead, Mr. Erdogan appears convinced that the political capital he gained is best used to oust his enemies, real and imagined, from influential sectors. This marks a dangerous turn. A large-scale crackdown on a society that has strong democratic currents within it and a history of revolts against rulers will only invite public resentment. In the case of Turkey, every junta regime in the past was forced to hand over power to civilian leaders. Even the brutal military takeover of 1980 didn’t last long. So if Mr. Erdogan and his supporters think they will emerge stronger with the purge, they could well be proved wrong. Secondly, the crackdown has already damaged Turkey’s standing globally. From a leader who survived a coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan has transformed his international image into that of a revengeful strongman. Even his allies in the West have asked him to act within the rule of law. Thirdly, while it is important to hold those responsible for the coup accountable for their actions, an all-out attack on the military — roughly a third of the command structure has been purged — could be counterproductive. Heightened tensions between the civilian government and the military can only have a destabilising effect.
Published on The Hindu, 25 July 2016, Monday