Concerns over Erdoğan power grab replace anti-coup unity in Turkey

In a late-night decree, Erdoğan declares a three-month state of emergency, fueling criticism he is using the failed coup to enhance his own substantial powers.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Members of the ultra-nationalist Turkish Youth Association take part in a protest against academics close to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen in front of Ankara University in Ankara, Turkey, July 21, 2016.

Turkey’s rare national unity in the face of last week’s failed military coup is eroding amid concerns President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seized the opportunity to mount a de facto coup of his own.

Late Wednesday night, Mr. Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, calling it a necessary measure for officials to swiftly cleanse the armed forces of “viruses.” 

He vowed the measure would not endanger democracy, but instead remove a threat to it and “to the rule of law and to the rights and freedoms of the citizens in our country.”

But the mass purge and investigations of tens of thousands of soldiers, policemen, judges, and educators is weakening the unity among political factions, all of whom condemned the attempted coup as an attack on Turkey’s democracy.

Erdoğan’s critics accuse him and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) of using the failed coup to enhance their powers, which already have few limits, as they suspend normal checks and balances.

Critics and rivals have warned for years of Erdoğan’s growing authoritarian rule. For some, the state of emergency brings Turkey one step closer to a high-profile project to change the Constitution to create an all-powerful presidential system, with Erdoğan unassailable at the top.

“No one should create an opportunity for dictatorship from a coup,” said Özgur Özel, vice president of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “With this coup, there is a struggle now against the space for independence and democracy.” 

Turks largely came together against the coup, in which 246 were killed and more than 1,500 injured, because “what is important now is the motherland – vatan in Turkish – so solidarity and unity is very important,” says Nilufer Narli, the chair of sociology at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, speaking before the state of emergency was declared.

“So people say that even though we have different ideas and divisions in this society, at the moment the vatan is important and we need to be unified,” says Ms. Narli. “We look at the slogans and we see that nationalists, secular, and liberal people and Islamic people are all together. I can say that in Turkey, the anti-coup attitude is the common denominator.”

Emergency tests rare unity

Indeed, Erdoğan overnight thanked Turks for that reaction: “Every member of our nation came together as one,” he said.

But that may no longer be the case in the midst of Turkey’s divisive political atmosphere – an us-versus-them attitude fanned especially by Erdoğan since 2013 Gezi Park protests against his leadership.

Officials say the new status is no different – and no more dangerous – than the state of emergency in France, which lawmakers extended by six months this week. Other emergencies have been declared in Germany and Belgium after attacks by the self-declared Islamic State.

But in Turkey, the AKP already controls parliament and the judiciary. It has cut the influence of the powerful military on civilian politics, and has won increasing majorities at the polls in virtually every vote since 2002.

The state of emergency allows the president and cabinet to bypass parliament in quickly making new laws, as well as to suspend rights and freedoms of citizens – moves officials say they will not make.

The decision to invoke Article 120 of the Turkish Constitution was made Wednesday during 10 hours of meetings of the National Security Council and cabinet, both chaired by Erdoğan.

'Full force of justice'

“The state of emergency won’t include restrictions on movement, gatherings, and free press, etc. It isn’t martial law of [the] 1990s,” said Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek in a series of tweets. The lives of ordinary people and business will not be interrupted, he said.

“I’m confident #Turkey will come out of this with much stronger democracy,” Mr. Şimşek tweeted. “There is no backsliding on human rights. Perpetrators of the failed coup attempt must face the full force of justice.”

And yet on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş reportedly said Turkey would temporarily derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights, as France has done, and hopes to end the state of emergency within 45 days.

The state of emergency went into effect at 1 a.m. Thursday, and within hours, criticism began to mount.

“After the coup, they [AKP] aim to increase an already repressive, anti-democratic system,” said İdris Baluken, parliamentary group leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish party that has seen members accused of terrorism and AKP lawmakers vote to strip them of their parliamentary immunity.

“This would be the biggest mistake that can be made,” said Mr. Baluken. “Turkey suffered a blow to the process before the coup attempt was made. Since June 7 [2015 parliamentary elections] there has been a coup against the popular will of the people.”

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