A political stress test: U.S. and Turkey

For many in Turkey, seeing the U.S. Capitol building being stormed by a disillusioned mob conjured memories of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Although both events were the result of different political and societal dynamics, both induced a similar shock to the country and had the potential to carry similar consequences for the society and the system.

The world was in a state of shock while watching the events unfold in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. Unbelievable images of the U.S. Capitol building being stormed by a disillusioned mob illustrated that even the seemingly strongest democracies have their weak spots. Because of this shocking scene and the series of events which followed, it seems the presidential victory of Joe Biden has pushed American society to its breaking point. In the coming days there needs to be a great amount of individual and collective introspection and changes made, lest this turmoil continue or worsen.
 
For many in Turkey seeing such actions transpire conjured memories of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. Although both events were the result of different political and societal dynamics, both induced a similar shock to the country and had the potential to carry similar consequences for the society and the system.
 
In Turkey’s case, a religious Gülenist sect infiltrated the Turkish state and tried to topple the elected government through what could be considered a classic example of a coup d’etat. During the coup attempt, the sect used its assets in the military to bomb the parliament building from helicopters and F-16s. The attempt was eventually thwarted, but the country was drastically changed afterwards.
 
During the period following the coup attempt, Turkey declared a state of emergency. After the arrests of majority of the perpetrators of the coup attempt, the state used this time as an excuse to detain, arrest, and prosecute many other government critics under the guise of fighting against coup-plotters. The trials of the putschists turned into theatre productions, as the courtrooms filled with cheering government supporters. Within the court of public opinion, the Gülenist sect was instantly turned from an ally of the government into a vile terrorist organization. Many people who in the past profited off their ties to the group and obtained positions within the ruling establishment quickly began distancing themselves from the Gülenists. Many were influential decision makers within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Some of the more capable ones managed to see the turmoil coming and distanced themselves from the sect immediately before the coup attempt. Many of them became former-insiders and began working as anti-Gulen informants in the post-coup period. The ones who could not see what was about to happen and stayed loyal to the movement either quickly fled Turkey or ended up in prison.
 
The judicial process following the coup attempt was often not in line with the basic principles of the rule of law. The government often engaged in mass incarcerations, grouping together everyone it saw as danger. A lot of sympathizers of the Gülenist sect, who were not necessarily involved in or aware of the coup attempt also faced consequences. Some spent years in jail, while others lost their jobs. An opportunity to purge the state and government of anti-democratic elements turned into a witch-hunt for any critical voices, many of whom did not have anything to do with the coup attempt.
 
This atmosphere of vendetta and fear blocked out any healthy public debate of the Gülenist movement, how it penetrated these state institutions, and how to prevent anything similar from happening again. The government chose to create its own narrative via these epic stories of defending the will of the people. This however, only helped the ruling establishment to centralize more power in the country and weaken the health of Turkey’s already wounded democracy. Turkey missed the opportunity to use the shock of such an attack on its democracy as a means of building a more transparent and open space for political and social pluralism.
 
American democracy was built on the strong belief of its citizens in the federal system and the protection of civil rights and liberties. However, all of this is currently under possibly the strongest stress test in America’s modern history. Depending on the actions of the new/old decision makers in Washington following the culmination of tensions on Jan. 6, the belief in America’s exceptionalism will either be reinforced or the consequences of this unprecedented shock could turn into a tool for further socio-political polarization.

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