Turkish democracy will struggle to survive one-man rule

Trial of civil society activists looks like revenge by president on those he thinks exposed his vulnerability

Turkey took a big step forward this week — and what may be a tragic step backwards.

A decisive victory against the party machine of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sunday’s manipulatively rerun election for mayor of Istanbul showed that the hitherto unbeatable president can be defeated by an inclusive opposition.

But the trial that opened this week inside a high-security prison, of 16 civil society activists charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the state during protests that swept the country in mid-2013, suggests that democracy — however stubborn — will struggle to survive a judiciary subservient to one-man rule.

Since the failure of the violent coup attempt against the Erdogan government in July 2016, that judiciary has become a machine to destroy not just the assumed perpetrators — followers of Fethullah Gulen, the US-resident imam and erstwhile Erdogan ally — but broad swaths of liberal, leftist and Kurdish dissidents. Some 77,000 people remain behind bars while at least 150,000 have been sacked in an institutional decimation that has swept up judges and academics, teachers and journalists, soldiers, policemen and diplomats.

The Gulenists, a shadowy Islamist movement, had spent 30 years building up invisible clusters of power among police and prosecutors, the civil service and the army. This made their networks irresistible to Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP), the neo-Islamist movement that arrived in Ankara in 2002. The Gulenist cadres’ more recent surge into the military could only have happened with help from the AKP. It is unlikely they are all Gulenists, but at one point after the coup half of Turkey’s generals — 149 of them — were behind bars.

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