By Abid Majeed Shaikh
In the decade following 9/11, Turkey had emerged as a shining beacon among Muslim-majority countries with its curious mix of the ancient and the modern. Democracy was working well in the country and its economy was booming without a dependence on oil money. The former ‘sick man of Europe’ was doing rather well at that time.
Many in Pakistan’s political milieu including right-wing parties like Jamaat-i-Islami, PML-N and PTI have wanted to emulate the Turkish model. The Metro Bus project in Lahore was started in collaboration with a Turkish company and one of Turkey’s deputy prime ministers was present at the inauguration ceremony. Following an aborted coup attempt last year, many parties in Pakistan lauded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s handling of the crisis. What has taken place in Turkey since that night in July 2016 till the recent referendum is unprecedented in modern history and deserves a detailed discussion. Turkey is a state in flux and for its people, these are ‘interesting times’, as the Chinese curse goes.
Not since Joseph Stalin’s time have massive ‘purges’ targeting the opposition taken place in a modern republic. The McCarthy era in the United States was a dark time but it was nothing compared to what has transpired in Turkey. Publicly available figures indicate that the number of public servants ‘suspended’ by the Turkish government since the failed coup attempt is 81,500, while more than 20,000 people have been arrested in this period. The government has used various excuses to justify these purges including, but not limited to, membership or support of the Gülen movement; membership or support of Kurdish nationalist group PKK; doing business with a bank accused of ties with the Gülen movement; and association with organisations considered by the National Security Council to be acting against national security.
Elected members of parliament, mostly belonging to the Kurdish left-of-centre party HDP, have been subjected to house searches, and in many cases, arrests. Like Stalin’s infamous purges, the Turkish version started with the military, resulting in dismissals and arrests of more than a hundred generals or admirals. In Stalinist Russia, almost five percent of the Red Army had faced the purge (this became one of the reasons why German forces could trounce the Soviet military so easily early on in the Second World War).
Turkish military and civilian bureaucracy was not the only targets of the Turkish government. CEOs of many leading companies also faced arrests. With a stroke of a pen, President Erdogan dismissed thousands of teachers and judges within days. Echoing the ‘death lists’ that were prepared in Stalin’s purges, Turkey has a local version by the name of ‘official gazette’ — a website where the government posts names of people who are to be ‘purged’. These names are often posted after midnight so that the person could be caught unawares. Once your name is on the list, you can’t leave the country through legal means — more than 50,000 passports have been cancelled till date.
The political roadmap that President Erdogan’s AK party had prepared 10 years ago was called ‘Plan 2023’. It involved ruling the country without much hindrance for the medium-term future. The first chink in the armour was exposed by environmentalists who camped in protest at Gezi Park, Istanbul, during May 2013. Massive protests against the government’s unchecked use of power erupted soon afterwards and were brutally suppressed by the police.
In the general elections of 2015, AK party was initially unable to win a plurality of the vote. However, a re-election in the same year gave the party a comfortable majority in the Parliament. The failed coup of July 2016 changed the political landscape significantly, granting the government an axe to grind. Almost all opposition parties have faced coercion at the hand of the AK party’s government on the pretext of ‘national security’ — a terminology frequently used by deep state in Pakistan as well.
Despite the best efforts of the government to curb dissent — and actions that could be classified as ‘pre-poll rigging’ — the referendum results have remained equivocal. In three of the country’s biggest cities — Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir — a majority of voters have opposed amendments to the Constitution. The Anatolian heartland and the Black Sea coastal region have expressed a different opinion on this matter. At best, this was a pyrrhic victory for the AK party and President Erdogan.
Faced with an influx of Syrian refugees, ISIS presence at its borders and an Islamist President with greater powers, Turkey has suddenly started resembling Pakistan during the 1980s. It may still be too early to say how much damage has been done by the Islamists to Turkey’s democratic system, but an overwhelming number of educated young people in the country remain scared for their future.
Abid Majeed Shaikh is a freelance columnist based in Lahore. He writes on History, International Relations and Culture