Turkish Rally Highlights Unity Against Coup, But Little Else

  • Main opposition party invited ruling AK to its anti-coup rally
  • Erdogan’s motives divide population as purges continue

A rally organized by Turkey’s main opposition party Sunday in Istanbul turned into a rare show of national unity as rival political groups joined in to denounce the July 15 attempted coup. Yet conversations with people in the crowd showed a nation divided over where to go next.

Several tens of thousands attended the demonstration in Istanbul’s Taksim square organized by the center-left CHP, which sees itself as the embodiment of the secular Turkish state created in the 1920’s by Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk. The CHP invited the ruling AK Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which derives much of its support from religious Turks.

Demonstration in Istanbul on July 24.
Demonstration in Istanbul on July 24.
Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

“I came here because I want to partake in the unity of the nation,” said Sarac Ozdemir, a 43-year-old shopkeeper who supports the AKP. “I have friends and neighbors from all parties and it’s never been a problem. I think Turkey is going to amaze the world.”

Government Response

Others weren’t so optimistic. While opposition to the coup crossed Turkey’s ideologically diverse political spectrum, uniting Islamists with lifelong secularists, leftists, Turkish nationalists and Kurdish activists, deep misgivings remain over how Erdogan will capitalize on it. The government blamed the failed putsch on U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and has launched a purge to remove his followers from positions of influence. More than 13,000 people have been arrested and more than 50,000 have lost their jobs. Parliament last week passed a three-month state of emergency that allows the government to pursue the purge through simple decrees from cabinet.

“I’m against the coup, but I’m also against people trying to use it to bring dictatorship,” said 45-year-old Bora Erdogan, who is no relation to the president and wouldn’t give his profession. “I don’t want this whole coup attempt thing to be used to introduce an Islamic State mentality to Turkey.”

The crackdown has brought warnings from Turkey’s allies not to take it too far, and has roiled financial markets concerned that political instability could undermine the economy. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Turkey and Moody’s Investors Service put the nation on review for a cut that could strip it of its investment-grade rating.

Presidential System

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, while denouncing the coup, said “the state can’t be managed with hate, anger and prejudice." He also told the crowd that one lesson of the coup is that Turkey needs to maintain its parliamentary system, but with greater checks and balances. Erdogan and his supporters take the opposite view, saying it shows the urgency of making constitutional changes to concentrate power in the presidency.

"It’s necessary for stability and security," Prime Minister Binali Yildrim said in an interview with Bloomberg Television at his residence in Ankara on Sunday. "Under the presidential system, there would be no one attempting such an adventure. Because then an absolute political will would be in charge. A weak government would encourage coup plotters and there have been several such attempts during the AK Party reign."

Kilicdaroglu had asked supporters to only bring Turkish flags and banners with Ataturk, and not any CHP symbols.

“I am not left wing, but I am here for unity and togetherness,” said Sevim Karayuce, a 49-year-old housewife who said her support alternates between the AKP and the far-right nationalist MHP. “The nation should be together against this treason.”

Blaming Erdogan

Others at the rally said Erdogan, whose government was allied with the Gulen movement until about three years ago, bore some responsibility for the coup.

“The coup attempt was terrible and the Gulen people are behind it,” said Aslihan Yilmaz, a 69-year-old housewife originally from the central town of Sivas and who supports the MHP. “But who let them into positions of power? It was Erdogan. He let them take over these positions and look what happened.”

The alliance between Erdogan’s AKP and the Gulen movement was central to weakening the influence of Turkey’s traditionally dominant secular elite, until the two groups split in 2013, when Gulen backers in the judiciary launched corruption investigations against Erdogan’s inner circle. The ruling party also labeled that effort a coup attempt, and responded by dismissing thousands of judges and police officers, and restructuring the judiciary to give the government more control.

‘Democracy Watch’

On the night of the coup, Erdogan appeared on CNN-Turk television via Facetime and urged his supporters into the streets. Their response to his call was one of the factors that led to the coup’s failure, even as some 300 people were killed, parliament was bombed by warplanes and a commando unit shot up the hotel on the Turkish coast where Erdogan had been staying.

Since then, he’s called on his supporters to remain mobilized, and Taksim and other parts of Istanbul and Turkey’s main cities have seen nightly rallies. The makeup of the crowds has varied. A Friday night rally in the conservative Uskudar district on the Asian side of Istanbul included some men in beards and skullcaps chanting religious slogans. A Saturday night rally in Taksim had thumping disco music and some young men drinking beer. In all the rallies, Turkish flags of all sizes have been omnipresent.

Birgul Ozcan, a 46-year-old high school physical education teacher with an Ataturk pin on her dress, said she mistrusted the motives of the AKP rallies. “This rally is a democracy watch, unlike the AKP rallies. They say they are there to defend democracy, but they aren’t. They are there to defend Erdogan. We are here to defend democracy. I fear that very difficult days are ahead.”

The divergent opinions expressed at the CHP rally won’t be manifested in a divisive campaign for votes any time soon. In the interview with Bloomberg, Yildirim, the prime minister, ruled out calling for quick elections.

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