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In Turkey: A Question of Emergency

[Pro-AKP rally on the evening of 23 July 2016. Image by Ayca Cubukcu] [Pro-AKP rally on the evening of 23 July 2016. Image by Ayca Cubukcu]

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” Vladimir Lenin once said. Turkey is going through some of those weeks. Given the failed coup d’état on 15 July 2016, and the state of emergency declared on 20 July, not much is how it appears.

What may eventually become clear is that Turkey is experiencing a constitutional moment under a state of emergency. In fact, with much charisma and appeal, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is mobilizing “the people” to turn the suspension of the constitution into the foundation of a new body politic. What is now at stake, if Erdoğan is to be believed, is the type of state and society Turkey will have in the second half of the twenty-first century.

Already, the legacy of this constitutional moment is memorialized for future generations. The date of the attempted coup, 15 July, has been declared a national holiday to commemorate “the martyrs” who helped halt the mutinying military on the streets that evening. According to Erdoğan, who cites the Kyrgyz author Chyngyz Aitmatov in an article, 15 July was nothing short of “a historic day that is worth a century.”

Since the coup attempt, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been using all means at the disposal of the state to ensure that “the people” continuously fill the country’s streets and squares. In Istanbul, where I was yesterday, all public transportation has been declared free, while mobile phone companies, under orders from the state, are providing free communication as well. All citizens have received text messages from the president himself, urging them to demonstrate in the streets after work until further notice. And many do.

Every night, across the country, tens of thousands from many walks of life gather together to celebrate the defeat of the coup and “to defend democracy.” The other night, in Taksim Square, the crowd—men and women, some with their children—was triumphant. Under massive Turkish flags, the square was covered in red. From a large podium resembling the stage of a pop concert, officials of the Justice and Development Party were speaking passionately at a flag waving, jubilant, and responsive crowd.

While many do not leave their homes in paralyzing fear, according to Erdoğan, the people who come out on the streets manifest a singular “national will,” which he, as the commander-in-chief, embodies. “Do not leave the squares until a further order,” he commands “his” nation. 

Yet, under the state of emergency, fear abounds. It is the arbitrary power of the police and other officials of the state under the state of emergency that is most distressing for the millions who do not support Erdoğan. Can one leave the country? It depends on what you do. Can one speak her mind? That, too, depends on what is to be said and to whom.

A massive purge is now taking place within the Turkish state and society. From the military, the judiciary, the police, and the academy, more than 50,000 civil servants have been sacked. Universities and schools, nongovernmental organizations and newspapers are being shut down. Along with civil rights, the European Convention on Human Rights too has been suspended.

Without a doubt, President Erdoğan and his supporters are attempting to appropriate “the national will” and traditional symbols of the republic in a show of force to reinforce their own power. But they are doing much more than that. What is at stake is the very constitution of the nation, literally and figuratively, as its lines of amity and enmity are redrawn. 

Will Erdoğan achieve his dream of changing the constitution to establish a presidential system? Will his constitutional push, under the legal arrangement of a state of emergency, lead to a new social and political consensus built around perceived enemies of the state? Will the purge targeting “Gülenist terrorists” envelop the strong opposition Erdoğan and his government continues to face? Only time will tell—and time is moving fast. 

On Sunday, 24 July, under a call from the Republican People’s Party—a secularist and social democratic establishment—another section of “the people” demonstrated in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. “Neither coup, nor dictatorship,” more than a hundred thousand people said. Like supporters of Erdoğan, they too waved Turkish flags and claimed to defend democracy. Most importantly, however, they demonstrated that “the national will” is not one, but many, and that President Erdoğan is not its embodiment, even in a state of emergency.

Will the opposition in Turkey participate in the constitutional moment or critique it from the sidelines? That is the question, and the signs are mixed. Two members of the parliamentary opposition—the Republican People’s Party and the Nationalist Movement Party—have agreed to meet with President Erdoğan on July 25. Yet the left-wing party of the Kurdish movement, Peoples’ Democratic Party, has been left out of this meeting, despite the millions they represent in the parliament. Regularly charged with being supporters of terrorism by Erdoğan, are they to be a part of “the national will”?

In Turkey, “the people” has become a question of emergency. Who can speak, arrest, judge and kill in the name of it? If the people must be represented, who can legitimately represent it? In his decisive attempt to restructure the state and change the constitution of Turkey, the greatest task of President Erdoğan will be to prove to be “the people.” And the task of the opposition will be to prove him wrong.


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