Democracy on Trial in Ankara
Ten years ago, Turkey was a solid NATO ally, a staunch opponent of radical Islam and a friend of the United States. Today all that is in question. Turkey’s current government is emphatically Islamist. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more aggressive in his Islamic beliefs. There are two reasons for us to be seriously concerned:
First, the Turkish government has become steadily more aligned with Islamist terrorists in the Middle East. Turkey’s emerging democracy, in the past one of the strongest and most developed multiparty systems in the Middle East, is sliding into a dictatorship. President Erdogan is creating not only a cult of personality, but also a centralized state in which all power lies in his hands.
Second, the government blinded itself to the years-long presence of Islamic terrorists on its territory until 2016, when the Islamic State launched a series of bloody attacks on its soil.
The Turkish people will vote in a public referendum on April 16 on whether to give the president expanded executive powers. However, free elections are tough to hold in the absence of a free press, which President Erdogan has deliberately eliminated.
When the Republic of Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it was a secular republic. Although the Turkish military toppled several of the elected governments, in every case it restored power to civilian governance within a short time.
As many have noted, the nation’s faith in its military was devastated by the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Understandably, the Turkish people rallied round their president. He leveraged that support to imprison thousands of Turkish leaders who opposed his expanding dictatorship.
President Erdogan overplayed his hand by using the coup as a pretext for purging every branch of the government of potential opponents, shutting down any print and broadcast media that could challenge his view of reality.
Declaring a state of emergency, the government arrested myriads of journalists, secularists, military officers and government officials — virtually anyone who did not agree with President Erdogan’s vision for Turkey. More than 100,000 were sacked, more than 40,000 arrested. Many suffered torture.
The Turkish government blames its travail on a geriatric Turkish religious philosopher living in exile on a Pennsylvania farm. Many Turkish citizens, despite the lack of evidence, have accepted the absurd claim that Fetullah Gulen personally planned and ordered the coup — President Erdogan’s pretext for establishing tyranny.
One example of how far these ridiculous purges have gone: Turkish soccer authorities announced they have fired 94 officials, including a number of referees, for their ties to the coup.
Tens of thousands of citizens have been arrested, and Turkey’s government is using this coup to settle old scores and to clean out the house of those it does not see as sufficiently loyal to President Erdogan’s vision for Turkey.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of this episode was last month’s report that Turkey would release 38,000 criminals from prison to make room for those taken into custody in these purges. Murderers, rapists and thieves were released in order to make room for political opponents. It does not get much worse than that.
I want to underline my desire to see Turkey become an economically strong partner with the United States, with the nations of Europe, and with Turkey’s neighbors in the Middle East. The Turks have been superb allies of the American people. They are essential to the NATO alliance.
We must wish the Turkish people well and do what we can to try to help them through these confusing times. America should do all it can to help the Turkish people succeed. For them to succeed, Turkey must have strong democratic institutions, a free press and a country in which people abide by the rule of law.