Thursday 29 September 2016

The West heaves a sigh of relief as democracy makes a step forward in Turkey

Brian Hayes

Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30

Supporters wave flags as they wait for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to appear for a speech outside his home in Istanbul. Photo: Reuters
Supporters wave flags as they wait for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to appear for a speech outside his home in Istanbul. Photo: Reuters

In Turkey, shortly after midnight local time on Saturday, tanks moved onto the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. The sound of gunfire was heard across both cities and military jets streaked across the night sky over both cities. An old-style military coup attempt was under way.

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By morning, the coup was effectively over, the ringleaders were rounded up and more than 6,000 people are now detained.

Large sections of the judiciary seem to have been removed as the finger is pointed at Fethullah Gulen and his movement.

At this stage, it's unclear whether Turkey might reintroduce the death penalty as it faces threats on all sides and from within.

What is most significant from a Western perspective was that all sides in Turkey, be they pro- or anti-President Erdogan, seemed totally opposed to the coup.

It simply didn't have support from the start.

Turkey remains on a high state of alert as the implications of this coup attempt for the wider security of the region come into sharp focus.

By Saturday morning, when it was clear that the coup had failed, Europe and the West looked on with utter relief. Had this gone the wrong way, the outcome for Turkey and indeed for the delicate balance of power in the war-torn Middle East could have been devastating.

What's obvious is that the Turkish people want to change their government exclusively by means of the ballot box. It was a test of Turkish democracy and the fact the opposition sided with the government is a healthy sign for the long-term.

That's not to say that Turkey is a liberal democracy. Nobody can argue that it is. But one unintended consequence of the coup's failure may well be that it helped to bind the country together in a lasting way.

Yes, of course Turkey must have a strong relationship with Europe, but it must also show that it understands our values of democracy and human rights. Its embryonic commitment to democracy took a big step forward this weekend.

Turkey is too big and too important to the EU for these events not to be significant to all our lives. It's a regional power player situated between the Middle East and Europe. A type of enormous economic and military buffer. A crucial player in the longer term sustainability of Europe, from the migration issues across the Mediterranean to our collective economy.

The instigators of the coup made a fatal error. They failed to neutralise senior politicians. The president called on citizens to take to the streets to save his government. The streets of Istanbul and Ankara, which had been almost empty, suddenly became crowded with cars and protesters. Crucially for the government, the police appear to have stayed loyal.

Turkey has had a long history of military coups and political interventions by the military. The military sees itself as the guardian of Turkey's constitution and the secular legacy of Turkey's national hero, Kemal Ataturk. President Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning AK Party have been setting a different political direction for Turkey.

He is very much in the nationalist authoritarian mould of political leaders.

In many respects, he resembles President Putin of Russia. He has clamped down hard on political dissent and gradually introduced extremely oppressive media controls. These are big issues for the EU.

In recent years, Erdogan has been projecting himself as a regional strongman. Turkey, of course, has serious internal political tensions associated with its Kurdish minority population. The government also took a strong anti-Assad stand, allowing arms supplies and other supports to flow to dissident groups inside Syria. Turkey also allowed its country to be used as a transition route for jihadi fighters from all over Europe. In recent months, Turkey itself has become a target for Isil terror attacks.

As a member of Nato, Turkey has the largest standing army of any Nato country. Of necessity, Turkey is also a partner of the EU in controlling the flow of refugees and economic migrants coming into Europe. Its government has driven a hard bargain with the EU in recent months.

If anything, the failed coup is likely to increase the authority of the president.

The Turkish economy, which is heavily dependent on the tourist sector, will be badly hit by recent events - putting jobs and livelihoods at risk.

The greater risk is that Turkey may be sucked into the wider instability that is now such a feature of the Middle East.

A stable Turkey is of critical concern to the EU. Turkey has a population of 80 million people. If Turkey became destabilised, it would pose a massive danger to the EU and the entire region. Dialogue and deal-making must continue with Turkey.

During the British EU referendum, one of the scares raised was the possible accession of Turkey to the EU. And while Europe will continue to engage on the question of Turkey joining the EU, the weekend's events have made that even more remote then it was before.

Turkey will not be joining the EU anytime soon.

Brian Hayes is a Fine Gael MEP

Irish Independent

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