By Nick Tattersall and Humeyra Pamuk
ISTANBUL, Aug 7 – Hundreds of thousands of Turks are expected at a rally in Istanbul on Sunday summoned by President Tayyip Erdogan to denounce a failed coup, a show of strength staged in the face of Western criticism of widespread purges and detentions.
The “Democracy and Martyrs’ Rally” at the Yenikapi parade ground, built into the sea on the southern edge of Istanbul’s historic peninsula, caps three weeks of nightly demonstrations by Erdogan’s supporters, many wrapped in the red Turkish flag, in squares around the country.
Erdogan has vowed to rid Turkey of the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers in the security forces, judiciary and civil service he accuses of orchestrating the attempted power grab and of plotting to overthrow the state.
The cleric, an ally of Erdogan during the early years after his AK Party was elected to power in 2002, has denounced the coup and denied the charges.
Tens of thousands of people have been suspended, detained or placed under investigation in the wake of the plot – including soldiers, police, judges, journalists, medics and civil servants – prompting concern among Western allies that Erdogan is using the events to tighten his grip on power.
“The triumph is democracy’s, the squares are the people’s,” said flyers put through doors overnight advertising free bus, ferry and subway transport to Sunday’s rally. The slogan adorns banners hung from bridges and buildings across the country.
Erdogan has invited the heads of the secularist and nationalist opposition, who have backed the government in denouncing the putsch, to address the crowds in what he hopes will show a unified nation in defiance of Western criticism.
“The only way to eliminate coups is to revive the founding values of the Republic. These values that make our unity should be spoken out loud at Yenikapi,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secularist opposition CHP, in a tweet ahead of the rally.
The brutality of July 15, in which more than 230 people were killed as rogue soldiers commandeered fighter jets, helicopters and tanks, shocked a nation that last saw a violent military power grab in 1980. Even Erdogan’s opponents saw his continued leadership as preferable to a successful coup renewing the cycle of military interventions that dogged Turkey in the second half of the 20th century.
Secularists and nationalists who oppose Erdogan also loathe Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) network, used by Erdogan in years past to help undermine the power of secularist generals suspicious of his ruling AK Party’s Islamist ideals. They have so far been limited in their criticism of Gulenist purges, though they have raised questions about the pace and scale of the detentions.
But such solidarity may not last. There are already opposition concerns that the restructuring of the military is happening without parliamentary oversight and is going too far, with thousands of soldiers discharged including around 40 percent of its generals.
The extent of the purges in Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest armed forces and aspires to membership of the European Union, have drawn criticism in the West.
In comments published on Sunday, the leader of Germany’s liberal Free Democrats (FDP) said he saw parallels between Erdogan’s behaviour and the aftermath of the Reichstag fire in 1933, portrayed by the Nazis as a Communist plot against the government and used by Adolf Hitler to justify massively curtailing civil liberties.
“We are experiencing a coup d’etat from above like in 1933 after the Reichstag fire. He is building an authoritarian regime tailored solely to himself,” Christian Lindner told the Bild am Sonntag. “Because the rights and freedoms of the individual no longer play a role, he cannot be a partner for Europe.”
His comments echo those of Austria’s far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who said on Saturday Erdogan’s use of the putsch to crack down on opponents was reminiscent of Hitler’s use of the Reichstag blaze to amass greater power.
Turkish officials have angrily rejected suggestions that the purges are out of proportion, accusing Western critics of failing to grasp the magnitude of the threat to the Turkish state and of being more concerned about the rights of coup plotters than the brutality of the events themselves.
So damaged are relations that Germany’s foreign minister said this week there was no basis for discussions and that “we are talking with each other like emissaries from two different planets.” Austria’s chancellor suggested talks on Turkish membership of the EU should be suspended.
Erdogan travels to Russia on Tuesday to meet Vladimir Putin in a trip he may hope will give the West pause for thought. It will be only the second head of state he has met since the failed coup after the leader of Kazakhstan.
“For Erdogan, this meeting with Putin is certainly an opportunity to signal to Turkey’s partners in the West that it could have other strategic options,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank.