- - Thursday, July 13, 2017

ISTANBUL — It was on July 15, 2016 — a year ago Saturday — that rogue military units sought to overthrow the Turkish government in a bloody coup d’etat that left 250 dead and thousands more injured.

One year later, Turkey, a NATO member and a keystone of security in one of the world’s most unstable regions, remains entrenched in a state of emergency that grants its president the power to arrest suspected plotters en masse, crack down on dissenters and journalists who “insult” the government and unilaterally issue decrees without parliamentary approval.

And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done just that.

Still, after a tumultuous year, Mr. Erdogan’s justifications for his post-coup norm are beginning to wear thin — and even starting to be drowned out by criticism from Turkey’s newly energized opposition, putting pressure on an increasingly authoritarian president still reliant on democratic institutions.

“Most people don’t appreciate the fact that the principles of law are being violated,” said Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “Many people don’t like the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are being arrested or losing their jobs or being accused of heinous crimes.”

“The clear indication is that, especially in the more developed regions of Turkey, the tide is turning against [Mr. Erdogan],” he said.

After rallying the nation to reject the coup, Mr. Erdogan has systematically used the incident to consolidate his own power and that of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP. Five days after the coup, Mr. Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency — since extended — that critics say has been the vehicle to amass ever-more authority while undercutting the civil service, the press and the independent judiciary.

Placing much of the blame on a supposed “deep state” of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime Erdogan ally now living in exile in Pennsylvania, the government has jailed more than 50,000 suspected plotters and political opponents since last summer. Meanwhile, 150,000 teachers, lawmakers, lawyers, academics and journalists lost their jobs and were effectively purged from society in the past year, analysts say.

Then in April, Mr. Erdogan’s constitutional overhaul passed by an unexpectedly close margin in a national referendum, further transforming Mr. Erdogan’s largely ceremonial post as president into a powerful position from which he can now appoint judges and ministers and dismiss the prime minister and parliament, essentially at will.

Mr. Erdogan’s critics say the president didn’t win fairly. They say the government used its control of the media to suppress opposition arguments while clamping down harshly on dissent. A dozen members of parliament have been charged with supporting terrorist activity because of public comments against the government.

The president struck a defiant tone in the days ahead of Saturday’s anniversary, when Mr. Erdogan plans to make a midnight nationally televised address to parliament at the exact moment a year ago when the coup was in full swing. On Wednesday, Turkish authorities detained 14 army officers and issued warrants for the detention of 51 people, including 34 former employees of state broadcaster TRT, for suspected links to the coup, the Reuters news agency reported.

“There can be no question of lifting emergency rule with all this happening,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech to investors in Ankara as the arrests were being carried out. “We will lift the emergency rule only when we no longer need to fight against terrorism.”

Even with the crackdown, opposition forces have found momentum in large swaths of the electorate dissatisfied with the status quo.

A 250-mile “justice march” organized by opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu morphed into an unexpected rallying point for Mr. Erdogan’s opponents. The three-week protest walk from Ankara to Istanbul demanding democratic reforms attracted increasingly large crowds, culminating in a massive street protest last weekend in Istanbul that drew a crowd estimated at over 1 million.

“Justice is a right; we want our right back,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said as he addressed the rally. “We millions here demand a new social contract.”

The protesters have issued a series of demands that include restoring parliament’s authority, lifting the state of emergency, re-establishing judicial independence and releasing detainees. Some here see the protests as having a lasting impact.

Turkey is no longer the country of 25 days ago,” Murat Yetkin, a columnist for the influential Hurriyet newspaper, wrote this week. “There are signs that the pacifistic but huge action of the justice march has started to change the ruling AKP’s stance. It may also have changed the wider political culture in Turkey.”

Shifting sentiment

Many ordinary Turks have shifted their views sharply about the still-murky events of July 15.

The Turkish military, which has long seen itself as the ultimate guardian of the secular revolution launched by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, had staged a series of coups against democratically elected governments from 1960 to 1997. But such interventions were thought to be history with the election of Mr. Erdogan, who came to power with a reputation as a moderate Islamic democratic reformer in 2003.

Many originally welcomed Mr. Erdogan’s harsh measures to quash the coup and rid the country of supporters of Mr. Gulen, who has steadfastly denied charges that he and his followers orchestrated the failed putsch.

But one year later, many are disheartened by how things have panned out.

“It didn’t become better; it became worse,” said 54-year-old Mehmet from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, who asked that his last name be withheld out of fear of being prosecuted for criticizing the government.

After the attempted coup, he hoped for a “better life and democracy.” But he believes the event only emboldened Mr. Erdogan to “do anything to keep power.”

Some Turks believe the coup attempt was secretly orchestrated by Mr. Erdogan himself, even though there is no evidence. Regardless, for many it’s clear that an event that nearly drove him from power has played into the president’s hands.

“The attempted coup has essentially provided a reason and an opportunity for the president to enhance the authoritarian features of the existing regime,” said Mr. Turan, adding that the Gulen conspiracy charges “have been used to silence all opposition.”

The troubling transformation of the past year has Turkey at odds with former allies abroad.

Ankara has effectively ostracized Germany and other European Union member states, which decry the developments over the past year as reason enough to halt talks on its decades-old application to join the 28-member bloc.

Mr. Erdogan hasn’t taken the criticisms lightly. In March, he accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “fascist actions” for preventing Turkish officials from holding campaign rallies in her country in the run-up to the constitutional referendum. Germany is home to an estimated 3 million people of Turkish origin — the largest Turkish diaspora in the world.

Moreover, Ankara remains at odds with the United States and Russia over their roles in the ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria — particularly regarding the continued U.S. cooperation with Kurdish forces at a time when Ankara is battling a long-running Kurdish separatist movement at home.

Those political differences have sent shock waves through the Turkish economy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that tourism from the European Union — by far Turkey’s largest trading partner — remains at a fraction of pre-coup levels, partly because of more than a dozen terrorist attacks over the past two years. Inflation rates have climbed above 10 percent, and the youth unemployment rate stands at 24 percent, according to a recent report by the OECD.

It may be economic pressure rather than political dissent or street protests that cause Mr. Erdogan to rethink his recent moves, Mr. Turan said.

“With all of them, Turkey isn’t getting what it wants, and it’s in an isolated position,” he said. “The president is cognizant of the fact that he is exceptionally reliant on domestic and international backing in order to stay in power and carry through his agenda.”

The unexpectedly close referendum, with 48 percent voting against the constitutional changes despite the government’s heavy-handed lobbying, also could serve as a brake on Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions, showing a strong bloc of the population opposes his authoritarian, nonsecular agenda.

“There is a part of the Turkish population, even among the AKP supporters, who strongly believes in a secular nation,” said 35-year-old Kemal in Istanbul, who asked that his last name be withheld.

Also, if the economic situation continues to worsen, Mr. Erdogan could lose an election, Mr. Turan said.

Turkey is slated to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019.

“The mechanisms of political competition are not fully destroyed,” Mr. Turan said.

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