Some would say that the failed coup d’état, dramatic as it seemed, was the best thing that ever happened to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
On July 15, 2016, a section of the Turkish military launched an operation to overthrow the government and topple President Erdogan. Soldiers and tanks took to the streets in several major cities, Turkish fighter jets dropped bombs on their own parliament and explosions rang out in Ankara and Istanbul and for half a day, it seemed as if the coup would be successful.
But then, everything shifted.
Thousands of people rushed the streets and, alongside police and loyalist forces, fought back the coup attempt until the two sides reached a standoff on the famous Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul and the government could declare victory over its enemies. President Erdogan blamed his former ally Fethullah Gulen, leader of the influential religious movement “Hizmet,” for the failed coup, but was also quick to allude to a possible influence from the country’s minoritie: Jews, Alevis, Armenians and Christians in the attack on Turkey and its values.
At first glance, this was a close call for Erdogan, but as I came to understand during my short stay there:
Turkey is all about the things we cannot see.
Following the failed coup, President Erdogan cleaned house. Saying that he needed to rid the country of “terrorists” and societal elements that had been involved in the attempt to overthrow the government, tens of thousands of people were arrested on charges of links to Gulen and his movement. Academics, journalists, military personnel, police officers, civil servants, teachers and minorities were arrested, fired, and harassed for what was described as "terrorist activity", and as of now the post-coup arrests have surpassed 55, 000 and 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs.
Little to no evidence was needed in order to be punished by the Erdogan government and one woman I spoke to had been detained and had her passport revoked by the government, simply for having attended a university with links to Fethullah Gulen – hers being one of countless stories about extrajudicial punishment against so-called enemies of the state.
As Turkey nears its general elections on June 24, it does so under a declared state of emergency and with an amended constitution that will give the elected president substantial executive powers compared to the limited role he has had under the current parliamentary system. Following the July 15 coup, the President is able to rule by decree to a large extent and the powers of the parliament have been significantly reduced, having lost major roles such as preparing the nation’s budget to the office of the President.
As far as pre-election airtime, billboards and public forums go, the deck is stacked in President Erdogan’s favor, and the people I speak to on the streets of Istanbul seem to expect the results to be corrupted and Erdogan to either outright cheat or at least suppress voting to an extent where it sways the results significantly.
“There are three candidates in this election,” one woman tells me, “Recep, Tayyip and Erdoğan,” eloquently summing up the Turkish people’s exasperation toward this election.
Officially, the competing parties are President Erdogan, opposition candidates Muharrem İnce or Meral Akşener and the Nation’s Alliance composed of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Good Party (İyi Parti), Felicity Party (SP), and Democratic Party (DP), but in reality this is far from a level playing field. Many are the disenfranchised voices, from the Armenians and Christians to the Sunni minority of Alevis and of course, the Kurds, who with their 25 million people represent a real threat to the current administration. Selahattin Demirtas, the popular leader of the pro-Kurdish party HDP, has been imprisoned since 2016 on charges of spreading illegal propaganda and there is widespread suppression of the Kurdish vote, all across the country.
Even with these troubling tendencies, Erdogan could face a real challenge on June 24, as this is the first up and down vote he has been put through since the coup, and there is no doubt that the people on the streets of Turkey are tired of the slippery slide toward totalitarianism that their country has undergone under his rule.
“Inshallah the sultan will fall this time,” says the man who sells me my coffee, and I can only imagine the frustration that lives behind those words, knowing the real cost of uttering them to a journalist in Turkey today.
Istanbul is crowded with tourists, and every few feet you bump into short-skirted European women, taking selfies at a café or giggling over a boy at the local hookah-shop. It looks modern, but Turkey is all about the things you cannot see. Since July 5, 2016, this country has rejected modernity and democracy and moved toward a place where there is no true rule of law. This is why the Turkish elections matter to all of us; because they are taking place in country that is at a crossroads and where the outcome will impact the entire region in a very serious way. Erdogan has entered his 15 year in power, first as Prime Minister and now as a President with growing constitutional latitude, and if re-elected one can expect his grip to tighten, not least over the many religious and ethnic minorities that already suffer greatly under his command.
When I ask my Kurdish friend if he thinks Erdogan will leave if he loses the election, he shrugs and look at me as if the question is ill conceived:
“He has to, right? Then again, who knows? Things change in a day here, so the only lesson I have learned over the years is to not make too many predictions.”
As I’m leaving Istanbul and ride across the Bosporus bridge one last time I am struck by the almost poetic layout of a city on two continents, struggling to keep its keel with one foot in each world. On the surface Istanbul gained its footing, but then again, this country is all about the things you cannot see.
(Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish journalist and political advisor who has previously contributed to such outlets as The Washington Examiner, Commentary Magazine, The Jerusalem Post and National Review. Ms Rothstein traveled to Turkey to research her first book on the Jewish Diaspora and to meet with regional minorities ahead of the upcoming Turkish election.)