Here I sit in a small earthly paradise above the Athenaeum Bookshop, as writer-in-residence, while a military coup is slowly progressing back home.
I scan the Turkish newspapers on the internet every morning to see if the next step has been taken. To see what the next step will be. To see who will take the next step.
But you may be wondering how a coup can “slowly progress”. Good question. I have witnessed two in my lifetime (actually, three, but I was only five the first time and remember nothing of it), and the pattern was always the same: you wake up in the morning, turn on the radio or television, and an army officer tells you that the country is now in safe hands, his statement is repeated again and again, interspersed by songs of Turkish heroism and images of heroic Turkish tanks.
Not this time. This time there are no declarations on television, no songs and no tanks. This time everything is being done to overthrow an elected government, except for the actual act of dragging the cabinet away under armed guard.
It started more than a year ago.
It was time, last April, for a new President of the Republic to be elected. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had frequently said that he wished to become President. Given that the President is elected by parliament and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) enjoyed a comfortable majority, it would have been a walkover for him.
But it was clear that the military did not want an AKP member, and a man whose wife wears a headscarf, to be President. Erdoğan compromised, and Abdullah Gül, foreign minister for the previous five years, was put forward as the party’s candidate. He won the vote easily.
All hell broke loose. The social democratic opposition, neither social nor democratic, but exclusively nationalistic and anti-Islam, took the issue to the Constitutional Court, claiming that Parliament had not been quorate during the vote. This was true, but had also been the case for practically every previous presidential vote, none of which had been challenged.
The Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum on their website, warning, in thinly veiled language, that they would not tolerate Gül’s presidency. This blatant interference in both judicial and governmental affairs, quickly dubbed the “e-memorandum”, worked, and the Court annulled Gül’s election.
In the same weeks, huge demonstrations were organised in several cities to “Defend the Republic”. You could be forgiven for thinking that the country was under foreign occupation and that the demonstrations were held to expel the enemy:
Turkish flags ranging in size from the normal to the gigantic were carried through the streets and hung from the windows; pictures of Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic in 1923, were paraded in their thousands; and speakers from the platform called for the armed forces to “do their duty” – a euphemism for taking power.
Interestingly, the demonstrations, semi-officially but strongly supported by the military and the social democrats, were attended by people not normally associated with political activism: the westernised, middle class, well-dressed residents of the better-off districts of Istanbul. People afraid that their life-style was under threat from the Muslim hordes of rural Turkey, represented by the AKP.
The annulment of Gül’s presidency forced the government to call an early general election, in July. As so often in modern Turkish history when they are given the chance, the people did the exact opposite of what the military wanted. AKP had polled 34 percent in 2002; now they were re-elected with a thumping 47 percent.
Those of us who prefer to live under an elected government which we may not like to living under the unelected jackboot of the military sighed a sigh of relief. A military takeover needs to justify itself, first to the country and, second, to world opinion. How do you legitimise a coup against a government which has just received one in every two votes cast? No, there could be no coup.
Then, in mid-March, the Prosecutor-in-Chief started proceedings to close the AKP down, for having become “the focus of anti-secular activities”. I am, thankfully, not a lawyer; but even I found the indictment laughable.
Quite apart from the fact that in six years the government has not taken a single step and not passed a single piece of legislation which could in any way be interpreted as “Islamic”, the indictment was truly a piece of Kemalist paranoia. The case continues. But it seems clear that the party will be closed down and its leading members, including the prime minister, barred from active politics. What then?
Early this month, the Constitutional Court ruled, in yet another case brought before it by the social democratic party, that recent government legislation which legalised the wearing of headscarves in universities was unconstitutional. Now, let’s make this clear: it was illegal for students to wear headscarves in universities and the new legislation simply legalised it. Given the uproar this caused in certain circles, it would be an easy mistake to think that the government had made it obligatory to wear the headscarf. In fact, the ban had been imposed in 1989, on the initiative of the then President Kenan Evren, leader of the military coup of 1980.
The Constitutional Court can rule on procedural matters, not on the substance of legislation. It clearly did the latter. Generals were shown on TV celebrating the Court’s decision. Even opponents of the government agree that the decision makes a mockery of democracy and of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary. It means goodbye to meaningful elections and goodbye to government by elected representatives. And given that the same Court will rule over the case against the AKP, there can be little doubt that the party will be closed down.
The “Action Plan”
On 20 June, the liberal daily Taraf published a document which had been leaked to it from within the armed forces. The military’s “Action Plan”, prepared and put into operation last September, consisted of a series of steps designed to manipulate public opinion in line with the armed forces’ views, against the government “responsible for religious/reactionary movements” and against the “terrorist” Kurdish Democratic Society Party which has 20 members of parliament. The document emphasises the need to “avoid giving the impression of interference in daily politics” and to “remain in contact with opinion-making institutions such as universities, chairmen of the upper judicial bodies, members of the press, and artists, and ensure that they work in tandem with the armed forces”.
The Chiefs of Staff issued a denial: “There is no such action plan prepared and approved by the normal chain of command of the armed forces”. In other words, yes, there is such a plan! And we don’t care if you all know about it!
Something is rotten in the state of Turkey!
What has been going on in Turkey, and what makes me turn my computer on with a sense of foreboding every morning, has nothing at all to do with Islam, fundamentalism, secularism or the defence of the Republic. It has everything to do with a rotten state mechanism – the military, the judiciary and the bureaucracy – defending itself with tooth and nail.
The AKP is not an Islamic party. It is a conservative, neo-liberal party most of the leaders of which come from an Islamic tradition. There is no threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey, either from the government or from anywhere else. Fundamentalist parties have never polled more than 5 or 6 percent in any election. But “defence of the secular Republic against Islamic fundamentalism” has been the rallying call of the state mechanism in an attempt to mobilise the public against the government. With no success.
Precisely because it comes from a tradition other than statist and nationalist Kemalism, AKP is able to take steps which no other party could. It has shown itself willing to tackle such issues as a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, open discussion of the Armenian question, resolving the Cyprus problem, challenging the role of the military in politics, liberalising a great deal of draconian legislation. These are all challenges to the sacred cows of Kemalism and to the traditional managers of the all-powerful state.
The AKP does this not because it is particularly democratic, humanistic or progressive. It is none of these things. It does it partly because big business in Turkey wants to join the European Union and the AKP is the party of big business, and partly because it needs to push the traditional elite aside, at least a little bit, to make breathing space for itself.
As a socialist, and the son of a Jewish family, I would never in a thousand years vote for a deeply conservative, neo-liberal party from an Islamic background. But as long as they remain the elected government of the country, I will stand with them against any attempt to overthrow them by military force or judicial trickery.
This article has appeared in Dutch in the newspaper De Volkskrant