Tayyip Recep Erdogan has launched a massive crackdown against the Turkish military, Turkish dissidents and political opponents following an attempted coup that happened overnight Saturday morning New Zealand time. Over 190 have been reported killed, over 1,000 injured with more than 1500 arrests made. Social media access has been restricted and martial law has been declared. As details emerge, it is appropriate to look at why it happened and how the Government response will affect Turkey.
Turkey is a strongly secular nation, despite being in a part of the world with a predominantly Muslim population. Its geographical location on the edge of what is recognized as Europe. Having risen out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, which was disestablished by peace treaties signed at the end of World War One. The founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the hero of the Turkish campaign against the attack by the British Commonwealth, French, Indian and South African forces that attacked Gelibolu (Gallipoli)in 1915 envisioned a secular society. Mr Ataturk encouraged Turks to adopt a western style of dress based on reforms started by Mahmud II. He undertook comprehensive education reforms that saw huge increases in the numbers of Turks receiving education at all levels. He instigated economic reforms that included the establishment of Turkey’s first bank and national railways. Mr Ataturk also permitted the first private ventures – steel, textile, paper and sugar factories – were all established.
Over the decades since, Turkey has become one of the most prosperous nations in the Middle East. It has maintained strategic importance as a nation that is viewed as moderately Islamic, where most ethnicities are treated with a degree of decency – Kurds and Armenians being an exception. Turkey developed good ties with Israel and a degree of co-operation that few other Muslim nations have achieved.
Enter Recept Tayyip Erdogan, former football player, turned politician. Mr Erdogan’s political career began when he was elected Mayor of Istanbul. Many were worried that he might be going to impose Islamic law, but instead Mr Erdogan remained pragmatic and focussed on the major problems Istanbul faced, including rubbish, water shortages and traffic. He managed to ensure finances were responsibly used and paid back significant debt that the city owed.
His politics have not always been free of controversy. He was barred from office and jailed for 10 months in 1998 for inciting religious hatred, leading him to form a more moderate-conservative line of thinking.
When Mr Erdogan was elected President of Turkey, he had a vision of getting Turkey membership of the European Union. He proposed high speed railway networks and what has been considered a pro-Ottoman empire foreign policy. Starting in 2012, Mr Erdogan has taken an increasingly authoritative approach to his Presidency. Protests erupted when a development involving a park was opposed and Turkish security forces were deployed to quell them. Then a cartoonist who depicted Mr Erdogan in a negative way was censored for his work. Surveillance of dissidents began to increase and security forces were told to take a harder line. Journalists were silenced with threatening messages.
Since the establishment of Islamic State as a terrorist group, doubts have begun to grow about what Mr Erdogan’s real intentions are. Despite being at a crucial cross roads in the Middle East, for supplies heading to Islamic State, Turkey has failed to cut them off. Despite being linked to war crimes Turkey has supported acts of war by allies of the U.S., which have exacerbated the conflict in the Middle East. A good example is in 2015 Mr Erdogan said he supported Saudi Arabia’s campaign of aerial bombardment against rebel targets in Yemen. The bombardment which has involved indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets including residential, hospital and educational facilities has attracted widespread international criticism.
Now as we watch a crack down in Turkey begin to damage its international reputation and make the world wonder about the sanity of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, I cannot help but wonder if this supposedly moderate politician really is the good fellow he makes himself out to be. And how much more damage his brand of politics Turkey can sustain?