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Turkey at a crossroads

Tom Stevenson, IstanbulAugust 5, 2016

The impact of the failed coup attempt that almost toppled the Turkish government last month is reshaping the landscape of Turkish politics, as Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.

Türkei Erdogan trifft Vertreter der Parteien in Ankara
Image: Reuters/Türkei, Präsidialamt/K. Ozer

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not a man who is used to apologizing. A plain-speaking natural orator, Erdogan is better known for forcing his opponents into tight spots than for navigating himself out of them.

But Erdogan expressed contrition in an address on August 3 when he discussed his own past support for the Gulenists, a secretive religious movement now believed by a majority of Turkish society and many observers to have orchestrated an attempted military coup in July.

"For a long time, we couldn't see that this group was an instrument and cover of other goals and sinister calculations... I ask forgiveness from my god and nation for this," Erdogan said, in a tone two steps removed from his usual rhetoric.

Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have spoken often against the followers of the Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen, at least since an alliance between the AKP and the Gulenists broke down in early 2013. In his speech, the president stressed that other politicians from across the spectrum had dealt with Gulen in the past.

two men (c) Reuters/Handout
Erdogan recently acknowledged his past support for Gulen and his movementImage: Links: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/Pool // Rechts: Reuters/Handout

But Erdogan asking for forgiveness is another sign of how shaken Turkey's political chess board is since the coup attempt, says Behlul Ozkan, professor of politics and international relations at Istanbul's Marmara University.

Sign of weakness?

"The coup revealed that Erdogan and the AKP are weaker than we thought: the president felt this himself very keenly when he barely escaped being killed," Ozkan told DW. "Since the coup some signals have been coming of the possible normalization of Turkish politics, back from the overly authoritarian trends we were seeing before."

The pieces are still settling and the Turkish authorities are engaged in a wide scale post-coup purge against alleged followers of Gulen in public institutions which has seen more than 26,000 people detained by police.

Since the coup attempt there have, however, been rare signs of unity between the governing AKP and opposition political parties, with frequent meetings between the AKP leader, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and his equivalent numbers in the opposition.

On July 25, Erdogan hosted a meeting of political party heads at which Yildirim, the head of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and the head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli were in attendance.

On Wednesday, Yildirim said in a statement that it was time to "turn over a fresh leaf and join together as government and opposition."

Unprecedented consensus

At the top of Turkish political life a tentative but unprecedented moment of consensus has emerged in the wake of the coup attempt, Ozkan told DW.

AKP member and activist Harun Armagan agrees that Turkey's political leaders are in a new, conciliatory mood.

"I think since this coup attempt people realise that a polarized society is one that makes you more vulnerable to undemocratic attacks and the political parties, leaders, and people have understood that a united position can strengthen the system as a whole," he told DW.

"The coup attempt was ultimately stopped by the people and many lost their lives, and it's important for the political parties to reduce the polarization and unite and have a common narrative against the coup attempt - it's something we can and should maintain in the long term," Armagan said.

Ozkan argues that a shift toward consensus is as much in the interests of the establishment opposition parties - CHP and MHP - as it is in Erdogan and the AKP's, and that the opposition leaders see an opening in the present environment and are taking advantage of it.

man waving (c) Reuters/File Photo/U. Bektas
The opposition is keen to take advantage of the current political climateImage: Reuters/File Photo/U. Bektas

"Pragmatically, the MHP leader needs Erdogan's backing against dissidents in his own party and the CHP has a long standing desire for a return to a more regulated constitutional order," Ozkan said.

Not everyone on board

But not everyone is enthusiastic to see warmer relations between AKP and two of its rival parties. The Kurdish People's Democractic Party (HDP), which has represented a more radical opposition, has been excluded from the detente and from invitations to the presidential palace.

"Excluding HDP from politics even after the coup attempt is senseless," a spokesperson for the party said. "It shows that they still haven't understood the consequences of the coup."

The ties between the AKP and the non-HDP political parties are mainly built on a shared view of the coup and dislike of the Gulenist movement, and may yet prove to be a passing phase, says Burak Kadercan, professor of Strategy and Policy at the US Navy War College.

"I wouldn't yet say there is an alliance between these parties but I would say there's a silencing factor in play because of the coup and because the opposition has little reason to pick an argument with the government at this moment," he told DW.

Kadercan said there is still a chance that the consensus Turkey's political parties forged in opposing the coup attempt could lead in positive directions but that will still be up to Erdogan.

"This may be Erdogan's last chance to turn the country back from the brink of disaster: he has the capability to do that, he could unify the country," Kadercan told DW, "but whether he will take that chance is difficult to say."