Fabricating Illusions of People Power in Post-coup Turkey

Nationalist sentiment, mass rallies and divisive politics have dangerously polarized Turkish society in the weeks since the failed coup attempt.

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By Joris Leverink

Post-coup Turkey has been one great celebration of the nation’s victory over the coup plotters who were out to overthrow the government. The slogan hakimiyet milletindir, meaning “sovereignty belongs to the nation,” is everywhere. It can be seen on posters and banners at countless bus stops, street lights and overpasses, on massive billboards and on TV screens in public transport.

Bright red Turkish flags adorn cars, shop windows and public buildings. For several weeks, people gathered every night for so-called “democracy watches,” playing Ottoman marches, waving flags and shouting “God is great!” at regular intervals. A popular soundtrack of these gatherings is a song praising the President with the catchy chorus: “Reee-ceeep Tay-yiiip Erdoğan.”

On the night of July 15, when the coup attempt was in full swing and still had a chance of succeeding, President Erdoğan appeared on TV to call upon the people to “gather in the squares” to “protect democracy.” He took a risky bet that could easily have ended with the deaths of thousands of people. The call was heard by millions, and in hindsight this was the moment the fate of the attempted coup was sealed. As long as the president was free to rally his supporters to the streets, the coup plotters would never be able to gain enough public support to establish control over the country without starting a civil war.

The bet paid off. Despite almost 250 civilian deaths in clashes with the military, “the people” were victorious. Tens of thousands responded to Erdoğan’s call and flocked to the streets to confront the soldiers. Their active resistance played a decisive role in crushing the attempted coup.

The resistance against the attempted coup has since been turned into a national myth of how a heroic nation rose to the challenge to protect its homeland. Polarization in society — already quite extreme before the coup — has reached unprecedented levels, whereby every opponent of the ruling party can be considered an enemy of the state, and treated as such. The country’s leadership has cleverly exploited the narrative of a “nation’s victory over evil” to lay the foundations for a new balance of power that does not bode well for those who refuse to march to the beat of the president’s drum.

Fighting the internal enemy

“Turkish coup resistance was ‘Second Independence War’” read a recent front page headline of the Anadolu Post, the English-language newspaper of Turkey’s state-run press agency. One might smirk and write it off as a case of illusory superiority. But this is exactly how the events of July 15 have since been presented: the Turkish people have defeated their enemy, broken their chains and brought great honor to the nation — or so the story goes.

The “First” Independence War was directed against foreign occupying powers. It was famously led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who would afterwards continue to found the Turkish Republic in 1923. The 2016 “war”, on the other hand, is fought against internal enemies — traitors and turncoats who are out to sabotage Turkey’s imagined destiny as a twenty-first century superpower.

Who these internal enemies are depends on who you ask and when. Friends turn into foes, fiends into fellows — this is the common thread that runs through the history of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), from how it came to power to how it expanded its influence — and now, finally, to how it entrenches its rule.

A large share of the tens of thousands of state employees who were sacked, detained or arrested in the wake of the coup are soldiers and police; the very same individuals who until recently were applauded by the government for their respective roles in fighting Kurdish militants and crushing civil dissent.

During the countrywide Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, Erdoğan, still prime minister at the time, praised the ultra-violent police crackdown on peaceful protesters as a “heroic saga.” Now, many of the same police who were all too eager to crack a few çapulcu skulls have themselves become the subject of another crackdown. This shows how easy it is to fall from grace in Erdoğan’s Turkey: one minute you are a hero of the people, the next an enemy of the state.

Some of the many thousands of people who were caught up in the post-coup purge may have had relations with or sympathies for the Gülen movement, whose leader is accused of masterminding the coup attempt from his home in Virginia — a claim he himself denies. But even if these people adhered to Gülen’s ideas, chances are slim that all of them were involved in plans to overthrow the government.

Whether it was Gülen himself or merely his followers who were behind the coup remains to be proven. Some of the evidence certainly points in the direction of the wider movement, but the speed and certainty with which the Turkish government and affiliated media outlets have propagated this version of events leaves little room to question this premature judgment. In fact, even expressing doubt about the guilt of any of the individuals who have been suspended from their jobs, detained or arrested in relation to the coup would suffice to be marked a suspect oneself.

What we are witnessing is a purge of what the AKP perceives to be its internal enemies — meaning everyone who has not yet blindly committed themselves to the party’s cause. Over the course of its years in power, the AKP has faced many enemies on as many different occasions, some more real than others: from separatists, the “deep state” and the çapulcus to a dreamed-up international “interest rate lobby.” And since at least 2012, Gülenists have featured prominently on this list, too.

What all these “enemies of the state” have in common is that their denominations are vague enough to be applicable to a wide range of groups and individuals, yet precise enough to instill fear and make people accept far-reaching security measures that severely limit civil liberties.

Sovereignty belongs to whom?

The state-sanctioned slogan of the successful defeat of the attempted coup — “sovereignty belongs to the nation” — is a good example of the AKP’s use of propaganda to manipulate the population’s perception of social reality in Turkey. The slogan effectively does two things. First, it sends a false message to the people that it is they, as opposed to the political and financial establishment, who are really in charge. And second, it makes a clear distinction between those who belong to the Turkish nation and those who do not.

The slogan implies that the Turkish nation has successfully imposed its will on the country when it defeated the coup plotters. It suggests that “the people” are in control; that without their approval, no political change is allowed to pass. There is, of course, an element of truth in this — certainly in regards to the attempted coup, which could count on only very marginal popular (and no political) support. The coup was condemned across the board, from the leftist HDP to the ultra-nationalist MHP.

But to draw a parallel between the popular resistance against the coup and the locus of political sovereignty is to take the events out of context and misrepresent the actual power relations in the country. Sovereignty belongs to “the people” only insofar as the popular will happens to align with the AKP’s strategic interests. Emphasizing the instances when the two coincide is simply a cheap trick to create the illusion that the party is but a humble servant of the people.

The AKP has tactfully refrained from claiming any ownership over the popular actions that contributed to the coup’s defeat. It merely promotes the narrative that “the people” heeded the call of their president to stand up for “democracy.” Despite a notable lack of AKP party flags and symbols among those who continue to take to the streets and squares every night to participate in the “democracy watches,” the majority of these people are in fact supporters of the ruling party, as a recent public survey has shown.

Yet flags, scarves and portraits bearing the image of the president himself are prominent — and significantly outnumber the images of Kemal Atatürk. This is a prominent sign of where the country is headed: with the AKP supposedly left out of the equation, what remains is “the people” on the one hand and their president on the other — a president who casts himself as the embodiment of the “national will.”

Following from the idea that nothing in this country happens unless it is condoned by “the people,” the logical conclusion is that whatever does happen — whether it is the destruction of Kurdish towns, the construction of a third airport in Istanbul, or the shutting down of critical media — carries the consent of the nation. By implication, the same nation is also free to take matters into its own hands, instilling great fear of violence among minority groups like the Kurds, Alevis, LGBTQ+ and leftists. The concerns of those on the margins are not echoed by “the nation” and can therefore easily be ignored or repressed.

All of this serves as a powerful reminder that in twenty-first century Turkey, democracy is understood as the legal dictatorship of the majority. Whoever collects the most votes is now free to rule as they see fit, with no accountability to anyone but their own constituency.

Serving and shaping the national will

One of the strengths of the AKP is that over the past fifteen years it has managed to attract support from an eclectic mix of social, religious and ethnic groups: from nationalists to Islamists, big business to the urban poor, liberals to conservatives, and from Turkish Kurds to millions of Turks abroad. Each of these groups has seen a different face of the AKP, a familiar and friendly face they trusted and believed in, perfectly adapted to each of their respective beliefs, interests and world views.

Religious Kurds saw a party that was prepared to look beyond ethnicity and to find common ground in a shared faith. Entrepreneurs found a party that was pro-market and pro-business, ready to open Turkey to the world and reap the benefits that came with it. Nationalist Turks recognized in the AKP a party that was determined to “make Turkey great again” and to set it on course to become the world’s first Islamic superpower.

With the AKP having firmly entrenched its rule and the president tightening his grip on power, the party is free to dispose of some of the masks it previously donned to secure loyalty and support. Over the years, the AKP has granted power and authority to party loyalists, meanwhile handing out gifts and favors to others with one simple message attached: what is given can also be taken away. Now the country’s political leadership has come to the realization that carrots and sticks may be appropriate tools to tame an unruly state apparatus, but that they are of little service when bringing a nation to heel. A genuine popular mandate cannot be won by threats and treats alone.

Together with its leader, the AKP has always presented itself as the party that embodies the “national will,” as an expression of the nation’s dreams and desires. But in claiming to represent that national will, it has also played an active role in shaping it. Through firm control over the country’s media and educational curriculums, the AKP has made sure that the nation believes what the party wants it to believe, and that it desires what the party wants it to desire.

The so-called “democracy rally” of August 7, which saw millions of people flocking together in Istanbul, served this exact purpose. It prolonged and exploited the euphoria people felt after bringing down the coup plotters, upholding the illusion that it is the people who pull the strings in this country. Tellingly, party symbols were explicitly forbidden at this rally, which was also attended by the leaders of the CHP and MHP, but flags with the image of president were ubiquitous. The renaming of Istanbul’s Bosporus Bridge and other landmarks after the “Martyrs of July 15” is designed to achieve a similar goal in the long term.

The result of these practices is that certain groups within Turkish society feel emboldened to actively shape their social environment to their liking. Public space has been appropriated by pro-government supporters, and they feel entitled to control and police it in ways they see fit. In the immediate wake of the coup there were reports of groups attacking and intimidating Kurdish and Alevi neighborhoods, of women who are not dressed according to Islamic custom being harassed, and of threats uttered against individuals who refuse to engage with the nationalist frenzy.

One month after the coup, most of the “democracy watches” have ended. Cars no longer loudly honk their horns every night. Despite daily newsflashes of journalists, academics and civil servants being arrested, or schools, businesses and universities being closed, daily life can almost be considered normal again. Nonetheless, it is hard to escape the sense that something has fundamentally changed.

The mobs of AKP loyalists may have cleared from the streets for now, but everyone knows that with a mere snap of the president’s finger they will be out in full force. This is their country now — or so they are made to believe — and henceforth they will set the rules. Walk in line, think in line, speak in line, and you will do just fine. If not, the nation will gladly settle the score.