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Erdogan moment

June 01, 2018

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IT was in July 2016 that the world witnessed a truly made-for-TV-moment in Turkey, with tens of thousands of ordinary people coming onto the streets of Ankara and Istanbul to thwart a coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For us in Pakistan, which, like Turkey, has a chequered history as a militarised state, the popular response to the coup attempt appeared almost magical.

The euphoria was short-lived.

In the two years since the abortive putsch, the Erdogan regime has not only systematically targeted thousands of alleged coup sympathisers in state institutions but clamped down hard on dissent more generally, with everyone from journalists to private school teachers fired from their jobs in the thousands.

The real games will begin after the polls.

In principle, Erdogan’s democratically elected regime was entitled to isolate and then take punitive action against the coup plotters. But the Turkish government has gone well beyond its legitimate mandate and itself made a mockery of democratic norms, often accusing those it has victimised of aiding and abetting ‘terrorism’ and threatening national security — a refrain with which we Pakistanis are extremely familiar. In doing so, Erdogan has provided a perfect model for autocrats all over the world to centralise power, all while claiming to be acting in the name of democracy.

Pakistan and Turkey are similar, yet quite distinct. Powerful militaries have used diametrically opposed ideologies to entrench themselves in the body politic; in Pakistan’s case religion has been politicised while in Turkey’s case the army has openly espoused secularism. Erdogan and his predecessors represent a new kind of political elite, which has a soft corner for Islamist causes and is not necessarily beholden to the military.

In our case, all political ‘newcomers’ in recent times have indicated that they have no intention of antagonising the deep state. This includes mainstream contenders such as Imran Khan, as well as the new brand of Islamists such as Khadim Rizvi. Yet it is hard to escape the sense that, differences aside, Pakistan might be about to have its very own ‘Erdogan moment’.

In the here and now, very few are looking beyond the uncertainty about elections being held on time, despite the timely dissolution of the National Assembly and the formal announcement of a polling date. It is like this every time, and speculation about postponements, manipulations and even a coup will remain rife until election day itself. It is after the polls actually take place that the real games will begin.

I think the Erdogan analogy is a truly meaningful one precisely because the clampdown on critical voices in the media, education and other fields has already begun. Unsurprisingly much of the media attention in recent months was on the systematic sidelining of Nawaz Sharif and his closest allies in the (now former) PML-N government. Far more dangerous for the powers that be has been a widening circle of dissent, primarily on social media, but also embodied in certain writers and TV anchors in the mainstream media as well as intellectuals.

The prominent popular agitations that have come to the fore outside the political mainstream recently can also be explained in part by the fact that so many young people are exposed to dissenting ideas via new information technologies. It is therefore logical that those in the highest echelons of power want to suffocate the supply-line of such ideas.

To do so, however, is no mean task, in part because contemporary political correctness requires that lip service be paid to democracy, human rights and so on. Erdogan’s speeches in the immediate aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt provided an insight into just how convenient the attem­pted overthrow of his ‘democratic’ gov­e­rnment was; at one point he even blurted out that “this uprising is a gift from God to us”.

Entering the next phase of our tortured democratic transition, with mainstream political parties constituted primarily by ‘electables’ looking to ensure that they are in rather than out of power, it is far more likely that the new incoming government will tow the official line rather than become the guarantor of dissent and political freedom that is the stuff of real democracy. In such a situation, what till now has been a steady clampdown on critical voices could very much become an ‘Erdogan moment’.

Turkey, like Pakistan, has suffered from its fair share of violent terrorist attacks in recent years. It is against this backdrop that the Erdogan regime has been able to manipulate public discourse and conflate every dissenting voice with the ‘terrorists’ that have wreaked havoc on Turkish society. Yet those Turks who demand interrogation of the root causes of terrorism and question the autocratic methods of those in power are absurdly themselves labelled threats to the nation.

The similarities are eerie. One can only hope that our next ‘democratic’ phase is not entirely an Orwellian one, just like Turkey’s has become.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2018