Turkey is a country located in the region of Western Asia. July 15, 2016 has been written in Turkish history books as one of the most crucial days in modern times. That evening, parts of the army and the Air Force launched an attempt to overthrow the government. The coup was quickly defeated, but it has had tremendous effects. The president has strengthened his power, thousands of people have been imprisoned and tens of thousands have been fired from his job. But even dissatisfaction with the president has begun to manifest itself clearly.
The coup attempt 2016 was dramatic. Parliament and the Security Service headquarters in Ankara were fired, bombs were close to the presidential palace, and in Istanbul barred soldiers barred bridges across the Bosphorus. The chief of staff was taken prisoner and anonymous dome leaders announced via state TV that they had seized power. But the coup was poorly prepared, most high commanders were not behind it and relatively few soldiers participated. After less than a day, the coup attempt had failed, but by then more than 200 people had been killed and over 1,400 injured, many of them civilians who got in the way of bullets fired in fighting between rebellious and loyal soldiers.
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President Erdoğan – who claimed to have been close to becoming one of the insurgents’ victims – immediately launched extensive purges of opponents, judging not only those involved in the coup attempt.
Thousands of civilians already went out on the streets of Istanbul during the coup night to protest against the coup attempt, and the following days, large demonstrations were held at the urging of Erdoğan. A strong nationalist mood was whipped up and for the first time in many years all major parties agreed, but Turkey’s relations with other countries received a touch of bitterness and irritation. Among other things, the government criticized the EU for caring more about the human rights of the suspects than for quickly and wholeheartedly condemning the coup attempt. The government also suggested that the United States could have a responsibility for the revolt by hosting minister Fethullah Gülen. Time and again, Erdoğan demanded that the United States extradite Gülen before a formal extradition request was even handed over.
Repeated indications by Erdoğan that it might be appropriate to reintroduce the death penalty, “if the people demand it”, provoked upset reactions in the West and prompted European politicians to question further negotiations with Turkey on EU membership.
That it was precisely Gülen and his loose network of military, journalists, lawyers, teachers and academics that was behind the coup attempt was immediately established by the government. The state of emergency was announced and it was said that it would prevail until all resistance has been defeated, which in principle gave the authorities free hands to intervene against abusive persons and organizations. Already on the first day, several thousand suspected Gülen sympathizers were arrested. In the following weeks, more than 100,000 soldiers, lawyers, teachers, journalists, doctors and mayors were arrested, dismissed or suspended from their jobs. It was reported that mass arrests of Gülen sympathizers had been prepared for a long time and that lists had been drawn up of suspects.
Exactly how the coup was planned, who was behind it and the extent to which everyone who was arrested or lost the job had contacts with the Gülen movement is unclear. The coup attempt triggered a stream of rumors, speculation and conspiracy theories.
The attacks against suspected Gülenists had consequences for society as a whole. The government began to reorganize the military. Generals and admirals had been fired and gaps had to be filled. Cadet schools and military hospitals were closed. Among other things, Gülen’s sympathetic military doctors were suspected of cheating with health certificates for Gülenists to be admitted to the armed forces. The arrests and dismissals in the armed forces have continued ever since.
Less than two weeks after the coup attempt, well over 100 newspapers, radio and TV stations, magazines and publishers had closed. The purges continued all the way into the government offices and the national security service. Thousands of Gülend run free schools and 15 universities were closed and tens of thousands of teachers were dismissed.
Turkey has also put many other countries under pressure to fight against Gülen organizations, not least in Turkish-speaking countries in Central Asia but also in Africa. European governments have been upset over how the Turkish government has used Interpol’s call system to try to get designated Gülenists extradited. Relations with the United States, not least, deteriorated sharply when employees at US missions in Turkey were arrested. In the EU, reluctance has grown towards membership negotiations with Turkey.
Kurdish activists, accused of sympathizing with the PKK, have also been included in the purges. Many of the newspapers that were closed were small local newspapers in Kurdish-dominated provinces. In parallel with the political purges, the army has continued the war in the south-east, which has destroyed a number of Kurdish-dominated cities. When the Turkish army enters northern Syria, supposedly to fight the Islamic State (IS) terrorist movement, attacks have largely been directed at the Syrian-Kurdish guerrilla YPG, which Turkey regards as a branch of the PKK but which the US has used as an ally in the fight towards IS.
Erdoğan has emerged as increasingly authoritarian. In April 2017, his increased power was formalized through a referendum that approved constitutional changes that gave the presidential office almost to dictatorial powers. The introduction of the new rules was accelerated in 2018, when the presidential and parliamentary elections were preceded by one and a half years. Erdoğan is now also chairman of the AKP government party. Not since 1950 has a Turkish president been able to be a party leader at the same time.
Ahead of the 2018 elections, the opposition mobilized its supporters with warnings that fate elections were waiting. Prime candidate Muharrem Ince made a strong election campaign, but Erdoğan nevertheless won it in the first round of the presidential election. In the parliamentary elections, the AKP became, as before, the largest party, despite a weaker election – measured by AKP measures – and the party now needs the support of a collaboration with nationalist MHP and its leader Devlet Bahçeli.
Election observers found that the opposition did not have nearly the same opportunity as the president and his party to convey their message, not least as the media became increasingly state-controlled.
In mid-July 2018, the government revoked the nationwide state of emergency that was introduced after the coup attempt in 2016. During the past two years, more than 107,000 government employees had been laid off from their jobs, many of them accused of supporting Gülen and his movement. In early 2019, it emerged that more than 31,000 designated Gülenists were sentenced to imprisonment since the coup attempt. Then also had almost 2,000 persons punished with life imprisonment, accused of having been directly involved in the uprising. About half had even been sentenced on the basis of “particularly aggravating circumstances”, a punishment that permits stricter treatment than the usual life sentence. Clearances and arrests have also continued, even though the state of emergency has been revoked.
The results of the local elections held in the spring of 2019 have shaken the AKP, which lost ground especially in big cities. Above all, a year of greatly deteriorating economy is believed to have diminished confidence in the president’s and AKP’s ability to govern the country. The opposition is blowing morning air despite it being far to the next election, and has also been given a figure to put its hope in Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu.
Follow the ongoing development of the Calendar.
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Gülenists winter became ours for other Islamists (12/12/2017)
FACTS – POLITICS
Türkiye Cumhuriyeti / Republic of Turkey
republic, unitary state
Head of State and Government
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (2014–) 1
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
Justice and Development Party (AKP) 295, National Action Party (MHP) 49, Republican People’s Party (CHP) 146, The Good Party (IP) 43, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) 67 (2018) 2
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Justice and Development Party (AKP) 317, Republican People’s Party (CHP) 134, People’s Democratic Party (HDP) 59, National Action Party (MHP) 40 (2015)
87% in presidential and parliamentary elections 2018; 85.4% in the 2017 referendum
parliamentary elections 2023, presidential elections 2023
- Prime Minister’s post abolished in 2018.
2. Parliament expanded to 600 seats.Sources
Turkey has a large minority of Kurds – a people who also live in neighboring countries in the east and south-east. The Kurds speak an Indo-European language that is related, among other things, to Persian. Their traditional settlements – Kurdistan – extend from southeastern Turkey into neighboring parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Lebanon. However, Kurdistan is not a precisely delimited area and has never been a political entity.
It is believed that Turkey houses about half of the world’s Kurds, probably at least 15 million, perhaps over 20 million. The fact that the figure is uncertain is partly due to the fact that “Kurd” is partly a matter of identification. Many Kurds are completely assimilated into Turkish society and do not even speak Kurdish, and millions live outside the traditional area of Kurds. For decades, Turkish authorities also refused to recognize the Kurds as a special group of people. Before 1990, they were officially called “mountain goats”.
During a civil war between the state and the Kurdish guerrilla PKK 1984-1999, the disobedience of the authorities and the military drove many Kurds to solidify themselves with the PKK, although they did not support the movement’s goal of uniting all Kurds into a Marxist-Leninist state.
There was no legal Kurdish party until 1991, when some MPs from another left party formed the People’s Workers Party (HEP). It was forced to cease operations in 1993 and replaced by DEP, which in turn was banned in 1994 and replaced by Hadep, followed in 2003 by Dehap, 2006 by DTP and 2009 by the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP. The many name changes, and cosmetic changes to party programs, were due to the Kurds’ parties being almost routinely declared illegal by the Constitutional Court with more or less well-founded allegations of conspiracy with the PKK guerrilla. In 2012, the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) took over the baton, now with a broader left-wing program that, for the first time, managed to attract sympathizers in larger crowds outside the Kurdish population.
Turkey’s position as EU candidate from 1999 brought to life the debate on Kurds’ rights. Among the Kurdish population there was strong support for Turkish membership in the EU, as it was supposed to lead to cultural and political equality between Kurds and ethnic Turks. During the first part of the 2000s, the position of the Kurds was also strengthened step by step. The existence of the Kurds as a people group was already recognized in practice, now it also became possible to broadcast radio and television in Kurdish, use the Kurdish language in most contexts, teach Kurdish – albeit to a limited extent – in schools. After peace contacts between the state and the PKK started, in 2013, the ban on political parties was used to use languages other than Turkish in their activities.
Before the First World War, most Kurds lived during the Ottoman Empire. There they formed their own emirates, usually governed by Kurdish emirates. Various Kurdish clans competed for pasture and agricultural lands. Most Kurds were still livestock nomads, but even after they became settled their old clan structure remained as a form of feudalism. The clan chiefs became landowners, and every such landowner, ağa, had great power over his subordinate peasants. Yet much of this feudal system remains in Kurdish areas.
During the 19th century, Ottoman rulers began to appoint their own governors in the Kurdish emirate. Interventions in their autonomy fueled nationalist thinking among educated Kurds. At the same time, there were attempts by the peasants to rise, both against their own aristocracy and against the Turkish central power. Some Kurds hoped – in vain – for vague commitments in the Sèvres Peace in 1920 that a self-governing Kurdistan would be established after the First World War’s victorious forces cut the Ottoman Empire. Others fought on the Turks’ side in the liberation war that led to Kemal Atatürk in 1923 proclaiming the Republic of Turkey.
To create peace in the south-east, the Turkish Republic’s governors chose to ally themselves with landlords and other local rulers among the Kurds. Discontent grew among the poor and oppressed peasants. Atatürk’s secularization policy became what ignited the spark of rebellion in the religiously conservative Kurdish countryside. Kurdish rebellions against the Turkish central power occurred in 1925, 1930 and 1937. Already after the first revolt, Atatürk forbade Kurds to speak their language publicly, such as in courts or schools.
PKK, the Civil War and Öcalan
The 1971 military coup forced many Kurdish left groups to go underground. In response to a wave of violence from both right-wing and left-wing extremists, Turkey introduced laws in 1976 in the south-eastern provinces. Two years later, from a Maoist student group in the southeast, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) was formed. The PKK set its goal to establish a communist state in the areas inhabited by Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In August 1984, the PKK initiated a series of actions in southeastern Turkey, which became the beginning of a civil war between the PKK and the Turkish state.
The civil war culminated in the early 1990s, when the PKK also attacked tourist resorts and other destinations in western Turkey. Despite the war, a somewhat changed attitude towards the Kurds was noticed by the authorities. At that time President Turgut Özal – himself of Kurdish origin – broke a taboo by using the word Kurd in public contexts, and the ban on printing newspapers and books in Kurdish was basically upheld. But the military continued to demand a hard line against Kurds who claimed their ethnic character.
From the mid-1990s, PKK began to lose ground militarily. Syria and its sound state Lebanon had long been a haven for PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, but since the US behind the scenes helped Turkey put pressure on Syria, Öcalan was forced to leave his many years of exile there. By the end of the 1990s, it was clear that the PKK suffered decisive defeats against the Turkish army.
In February 1999, Öcalan, in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, was arrested by Turkish commandos and flown to Turkey, where he was sentenced to death in June. Since Turkey abolished the death penalty, the sentence in 2002 was converted to life imprisonment.
During the civil war, both the PKK and the Turkish security forces committed grave violations of human rights. According to Turkish statistics, the war required the following casualties: 4,302 civil servants, 5,013 soldiers in the Turkish army, 4,435 civilians and 23,112 PKK sympathizers.
After the 1999 trial, Öcalan called on the PKK to end the armed struggle. The PKK’s leadership said in August that the movement would be transformed from a guerrilla army into a political organization. The PKK withdrew its fighting forces from Turkish territory, primarily to the mountains between Iraq and Iran.
The exception laws in the Kurdish provinces were gradually phased out until 2002. However, the military continued to maintain a strong presence in the southeast.
In March 2003, Iraq was invaded by the United States and Britain. A Turkish requirement for the US to use Turkish bases was for the US to also strike against the PKK in Iraq.
In May 2004, despite criticism from some Kurdish politicians, the PKK decided to cancel the ceasefire that prevailed since 1999. Soon, a rise in the “low-intensity” violence in the south-east was noticed, but the PKK was obviously not strong enough to carry out a real offensive. The burial of 14 Kurdish rebels in March 2006 marked the beginning of the worst unrest in a decade in several cities in southeastern Turkey.
After the AKP government’s big election victory in 2007, when the party received more support in the Kurdish provinces than the Kurdish party DTP, the PKK again escalated its armed attacks. The movement, however, basically observed ceasefire for a couple of years between 2009 and 2011. During this time, the PKK held secret negotiations with the government and the national security service on a political solution, but the negotiations became unsuccessful.
Collapsed peace process
After the talks were revealed to the media, the government’s attitude to the PKK hardened.
From the summer of 2011, the PKK stepped up its attacks on Turkish army posts in the southeast. The increased guerrilla activity coincided with mass arrests of suspected PKK sympathizers from the umbrella organization KCK, the Kurdistan Social Union. During the 15 months up to August 2012, according to estimates by the international Crisis Group, about 800 people were killed, of which more than half PKK members and about 85 civilians.
In early 2013, it was announced that continued negotiations between the government and Öcalan led to a “roadmap” for peace. Thereafter, several peace-promoting initiatives followed by the government, at the same time as Öcalan gave guerrillas orders for a ceasefire and a retreat from Turkish soil. Hopes for peace rose, but after a few months the suspicion between the parties increased again. The army questioned the pace of the guerrilla retreat and the PKK accused the army of increased presence in the Kurdish areas. The peace process began to grumble before it even started in earnest. New government proposals to regain peace work were suspected mainly of an attempt by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to win Kurdish support for his ambition to be elected president later in 2014.
In 2015, with Erdoğan as the new president, the faltering peace process collapsed in total after two terrorist attacks against Kurdish peace activists. Both attacks were presumed to have been carried out by the Islamic State (IS) Islamist terrorist movement, but the Kurds held the government as indirectly responsible because, according to both Kurdish and Western analysts, it was seen between the fingers with the presence of the Sunni extremists on Turkish soil. The party HDP’s great successes in two parliamentary elections in 2015 also disrupted Erdoğan’s plans for the AKP to gain such a large majority in parliament that it alone could change the constitution and give the presidential office almost unlimited power.
From the latter part of 2015, the Kurdish provinces were again transformed into a war zone. Tens of thousands of civilians were once again displaced and a number of cities were destroyed. After the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the Kurds were also hit by the state’s furious revenge against those held accountable. HDP’s leaders have been arrested and imprisoned. In 2018, Turkey also entered the Kurdish-controlled area in Syria through a major offensive around the city of Afrin. The peace process seems very remote.
However, the pro-Kurdish party HDP succeeded in clearing the ten percent barrier to the Turkish parliament in the 2018 elections and securing 67 seats in the 600’s.
In recent decades, millions of Kurds have left southeastern Turkey, which is the poorest and least developed part of Turkey.
During the civil war in the south-east of 1984–1999, according to Turkish data, the army evacuated approximately one million people from around 7,000 Kurdish villages to nearby major cities. Around 3,000 villages are estimated to have been completely wiped out and large rural areas almost completely drained of population. The evacuation of the villages mainly took place during the 1990s. The center of Diyarbakır received a new addition of people equal to three times the original population. Even around Adana and Mersin, large slums grew up and in Istanbul entire districts came to be mainly populated by Kurds.