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Erdogan sews up his Turkish revolution

When Turkey’s children returned to school in September, there was something new on the curriculum: a week-by-week syllabus, mandated by the minister of education, celebrating what many call Turkey’s “second revolution”.

Course materials included two slickly produced patriotic videos laced with references to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s success in putting down the attempted coup on July 15. The first opens with an image of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, superimposed over the nation’s red flag as Mr Erdogan’s sonorous voice recites the national anthem, the “Independence March”.

The second is perhaps more telling. A cinematic recreation of Ataturk’s triumph at Gallipoli in 1915 — a victory that set the stage for the creation of Turkey — segues into images of the violence of last year’s coup and Mr Erdogan’s moves to quash it. The message is clear: Ataturk was the creator, Mr Erdogan the protector.

But Mr Erdogan’s homage to Ataturk goes further than imagery. While rejecting many of Ataturk’s ideas — from denying Islam a role in government to his embrace of the west — Mr Erdogan has adopted his approach to governance. Like Ataturk, Mr Erdogan presents himself both as an iron-fisted leader whose power stems from his popular support and a social engineer reshaping society to mirror his ideals.

“This was a gradualist process which got blessed after the failed coup, which is now being presented as a second revolution or as the second war of independence,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research programme at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This is a top-down, Ataturk-ian societal engineering. It doesn’t share the same values but it shares the method. The Ataturk who defeated the Christians and the outsiders, he continues to live on, but not the one who liberated women and created secularism.”

Mr Erdogan’s revolution is not yet finished. On April 16, Turks will vote on its final act: a referendum designed to create an executive presidency endowed with powers that even Ataturk never held. With most of the levers of state in Mr Erdogan’s hands, he would be able to issue decrees nearly impossible for parliament to overturn, while having oversight on budgets, judicial appointments and cabinet assignments. A win would extend Mr Erdogan’s power at a time when Turkey is contending with terrorist attacks, instability in neighbouring Syria and an unstable economy.

The additional powers would give him the tools to reshape the Nato ally into the country he envisaged in the early days of his premiership: a republic with Islamist ideals supported by a loyal state apparatus.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new presidential palace in Ankara © Getty

Mr Erdogan says the change is long overdue. His opponents, shrivelled from years of electoral losses, say it emasculates parliament and formalises Mr Erdogan’s majoritarian style of rule.

‘No one feels safe’

In the months since the morning of July 16, when the president made a defiant appearance at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in the final hours of the failed coup, Mr Erdogan has appropriated a weapon Ataturk himself wielded: the purge.

It began even before the coup was fully defeated, as rebel soldiers hid in the forests and vanquished generals headed for the border. Seven months on, it continues. “Purges are as old as Turkey itself,” says a one-time ally of Mr Erdogan, who was recently turned away from the gates of the presidential palace in Ankara. “This one is no different. My friend [Mr Erdogan] sees a threat, a real threat, and he must combat it. What is worrying is that this one seems never-ending, and no one feels safe.”

Mr Erdogan describes the purge as necessary, a painful cure for the “cancer” that had gripped the state.

The first targets were mostly the mutinous factions of the military who were accused of loyalty to Fethullah Gulen, an imam living in self-imposed exile in the US. Once an Erdogan ally, Mr Gulen and his movement managed to weave themselves into the fabric of the country, including the police, the judiciary, academia and the armed forces.

Mr Erdogan blames Mr Gulen for the coup, and in its aftermath thousands of Gulenists were arrested and tens of thousands lost their jobs. Jails spilled over and detainees were tied up in school gyms, conference halls and army barracks.

“After the coup, there was some ground for cleaning up in the state . . . even the main opposition was understanding of a limited purge,” says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish writer who is now a visiting fellow at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “But soon it turned out that the government is using the coup as a pretext to build an authoritarian regime, by purging and taming every institution in the country, from the bureaucracy to the universities.”

Exercising emergency powers

For most of Mr Erdogan’s 14 years in power, some of his ambitions were thwarted by either the vestiges of the secular establishment or the constraints of a constitution that sought to contain the excesses of a single powerful leader. He has been liberated from those shackles by the emergency powers that came into effect after the coup.

Turkish soldiers are beaten by a civilian on Bosphorus Bridge the day after last year’s attempted coup © Reuters

That state of emergency, which senior ministers pledged would last no longer than 90 days but remains in place, granted Mr Erdogan the power to rule via decree, with his decisions becoming law on publication in the once-obscure Official Gazette, the journal of government decisions. Even the constitutional court, the top legal body, has demurred, saying it lacks the authority to examine or overrule Mr Erdogan’s decrees. Under previous governments, the court felt differently.

Now, every weekday morning, the Gazette delivers news of what will happen to Mr Erdogan’s rivals and critics. Academics who question the referendum are fired, newspapers that oppose him are shut down, journalists who irk him lose their jobs, businesses he accuses of disloyalty have their assets seized, teachers he accuses of siding with Kurdish separatists are banned from schools.

“I would talk to you, freely and openly, but I don’t want my name in the Gazette,” said a leading academic who opposes Mr Erdogan’s constitutional reforms during an interview three weeks ago. Three days later, his name was in the Gazette anyway, costing him his job, his pension and his passport.

Individually, the decrees seem small-bore: one bans bankruptcies, another changes the application procedure for civil service jobs. But as a whole, they create the legal framework under which Mr Erdogan has managed to bend institutions into obedience, creating a vacuum of manpower into which his followers have surged.

Supporters gather outside President Erdogan’s Istanbul residence to celebrate his birthday in February © AP

As government officials are fired, their jobs are given to those considered loyal to the Justice and Development party (AKP), the party Mr Erdogan used to lead, according to a man in charge of hiring at a major ministry. “You get the application, and separately, you get a letter from the party, recommending the applicant,” he says. “That’s it. And in two days, you get a phone call asking about the application.”

The Gazette — alongside a pliant judiciary — has also been deployed to reorganise the nation’s wealth. Some $10bn in assets was seized from businessmen accused of being loyal to Mr Gulen. For more than a decade, those same businessmen prospered when Mr Gulen and Mr Erdogan allied themselves against the secular elites, winning contracts from the government.

Now, with Mr Gulen and his followers declared terrorists, their businesses belong to the state, to be auctioned to bidders eager to proclaim their loyalty to Mr Erdogan. Galip Ozturk, owner of a bus company with a market capitalisation of about $100m, aims to bid for the assets of Koza Ipek, a conglomerate whose listed units once had a market cap of nearly $6bn. His biggest qualification: his desire to please Mr Erdogan and to do his will, he bragged to local media.

Protesters in Istanbul hold banners reading ‘No’ during a demonstration against April’s referendum © EPA

On February 5, the Gazette carried bigger news. Billions of dollars in the Turkish treasury’s stakes in blue-chip companies were to be transferred, overnight, into a sovereign wealth fund. So would an $815m credit line offered to a different state institution but now to be administered by the fund.

On the fund’s board is Yigit Bulut, an adviser who once warned that Mr Erdogan may be targeted for assassination by telekinesis. Its assets would be used to raise funds for what Mr Erdogan has described as his “crazy projects”, such as the landscape-changing infrastructure works that have marked much of his premiership: the world’s largest airport, a canal to rival the Bosphorus and high-speed railways.

“For all his years in power, [Erdogan] has felt like he had to move the weight of mountains to get even the simplest things done,” says the one-time ally. “Even as president, he feels like he is in opposition, that the system is designed to stop him from achieving anything. All of that changed on July 15 and now he finally feels free to do what his supporters want.”

It took a decade for Mr Erdogan to remove a ban on headscarves for women in civil service jobs, a move that a majority of the country supported against the wishes of the secular establishment. Only last week was he able to remove the restriction for women in the military. “It is the best example of why he thinks the state is against him, on something so simple as a headscarf,” the former ally says. “Now, he can do much bigger things.”

‘A long fight’

On a hill in Ankara sits the extraordinary presidential complex where Mr Erdogan lives and works, its sloping Seljuk-style roofs shadowed by the minarets of a mosque. While it has been vilified for its sultanesque cost (an estimated $600m) and lampooned for its size (perhaps 30 times as large as the White House), the public are welcomed to meetings with officials and to the adjoining mosque. Its public spaces are lined with portraits of Mr Erdogan, waving at crowds and cutting ribbons.

A flag-waving supporter of President Erdogan is silhouetted against a billboard at a rally in July last year

Inside the palace, an adviser to Mr Erdogan defends the referendum as a step towards making the president even more accountable to the Turkish people. “From the outside, western critics see this as a power-hungry government. From the inside, we see this as an ongoing struggle,” he says.

“It has been a very long, continuing fight: the Kemalists, the secularists, the Gulenists. Their hold did not crumble immediately, and at every step they have tried to block the president in doing what he was elected to do.”

For Mr Erdogan, he says, the palace is a symbol of a victory against the “old” institutions that have tried to stand against the will of the people. He pointed to the Arabic script above the door, an excerpt from the Koran.

“Peace be upon you for what you patiently endured,” it reads. “And excellent is the final home.”

Via FT