- - Wednesday, September 14, 2016

ISTANBUL | Six weeks after an attempted military coup failed to topple President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s cultural elites are watching with increased unease as the populist leader is riding a wave of nationalism to brand his critics as enemies of the state.

The widespread crackdown that followed the July 15 plot has already resulted in the arrests and dismissals of an estimated 45,000 judges, civil servants and military and police officers. And in the streets of the country’s largest city, it is clear that Mr. Erdogan is sending what amounts to an unconcealed warning that further dissent will not be tolerated.

Thousands upon thousands of billboards, lamppost signs and subway display ads have been clad in the national colors of red and white, proclaiming what has become a kind of official post-putsch slogan for his government: “We, the nation, shall never let Turkey be manipulated by coup plotters and terrorists.”

Journalists and academics say the campaign has had a chilling effect on political debate, and many have become extremely wary of criticizing in public the leader of the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AKP.

“Turkey has never been a functioning democracy. [But now] political polarization is extreme,” said Erdem Yoruk, a Johns Hopkins-educated sociologist at Istanbul’s Koc University. “We have lost much of our freedom of speech” as Mr. Erdogan has built “a really well-functioning propaganda apparatus.”

Through government-controlled media, Mr. Erdogan portrays himself as a caring and capable champion of the masses, and on a recent Friday he staged a grandiose show to inaugurate yet another massive infrastructure project — a hallmark of his administration.

As he opened the world’s widest suspension bridge — the third link between Istanbul’s European and Asian neighborhoods, aptly named after the 16th century conquering sultan Selim the Grim — the president drew a historical arc through Turkey’s “2,200 years of state and military traditions.”

And though his remarks came just hours after Turkish tanks entered northern Syria to attack an Islamic State-held border town, what made headlines was Mr. Erdogan’s promise to waive the bridge toll through the end of the month.

That’s the kind of populist move that lies at the heart of his political success, built on what Mr. Yoruk called a “tremendously expanded welfare state.”

The former Istanbul mayor, however, has struggled to win over Turkey’s pro-Western and pro-secularist elites, long at odds with the AKP’s less wealthy and more traditionalist base. He now seems to hope that the universally rejected coup will give him an in with this segment of society, still influential in the state bureaucracy, judiciary and military.

The government has built up much patriotic symbolism around the abortive coup, at one point going so far as to make flag carrier Turkish Airlines rename an airport facility as the “July 15 Heroes of Democracy Lounge.” Earlier this month, Mr. Erdogan characterized the events as the latest chapter of a history in which foreign interests have pitted “brother against brother.”

But critics say the president himself for years exploited class and ethnic divides to tighten his power, and his calls for unity are likely to fall on deaf ears even among apolitical youngsters such as Furkan Dindar, who said he blamed the government for Turkey’s prolonged political instability and backed the opposition Nationalists in the 2014 election.

Mr. Erdogan’s views are “just opposite of what Ataturk did,” the 21-year-old systems engineering student said, referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s widely revered founder who Westernized the country in the 1920s and 1930s and whose strictly secular ideals have at times been challenged by the AKP, characterized as moderately Islamist.

The state “can’t manage religion,” Mr. Dindar said. “Everybody should lead their own religion.”

But the U.S. and Europe have warned Ankara not to use the coup as an excuse to crack down on all of Mr. Erdogan’s detractors, whether they played a role in the plot or not.

“It’s important to stress that any reaction to that attempted coup has to be in conformity with democratic principles and should be proportionate,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Slovakia earlier this month.

But while Mr. Erdogan has recently toned down earlier proposals to lift headscarf bans and restrict alcohol sales, skeptics here say that his Islamist background is not just an act, Mr. Yoruk noted.

“He is not, I think, seeking power for the sake of power,” the sociologist said. “He sees himself as the leader of the Islamic world.”

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