Turkey puts on massive show of unity in face of Western criticism


Before millions, Erdogan reiterates call that death penalty for coup plotters should be debated in parliament

Demonstrators wave Turkish flags in front of giant screens on Sunday at Istanbul rally against failed 15 July military coup (AFP)
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Last update: 
Monday 8 August 2016 8:32 UTC

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Millions of Turks answered a call by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to gather at Istanbul’s Yenikapi Square on Sunday to display a united front after the botched coup attempt of 15 July.

The Turkish president also sought to use the biggest rally in Turkish history to send a message to Western allies critical of his sweeping post-coup crackdown that his actions enjoy widespread popular support.

He reiterated his call that the reinstatement of the death penalty for the coup plotters be debated in parliament.

“The leaders of political parties are here. They know you demand the death penalty. It is for parliament to decide. I will approve any decision in that regard,” Erdogan told a jubilant crowd.

He said that political parties will likely accept the demand of the people.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004. The last execution was carried out in 1984.

“I thank all my brothers who took to the streets on 15 July and stared down the barrels of rifles, faced down tanks and helicopters. That night millions of citizens literally defied death and wrote their names in history,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan placed the defeat of the coup attempt alongside what many Turks consider the defining moments of Turkish history.

“Nobody can place this nation under captivity,” Erdogan said. 

Authorities pulled out all the stops to ensure massive participation.

Public transport was free, free water was distributed to attendees, and a variety of entertainment - from live musical performances to Ottoman-style military band marches - occupied the crowds that had gathered since the morning hours.

Flyers were distributed around Istanbul that read: "The triumph belongs to democracy, the squares belong to the people." The slogan has become a much-used one since the coup attempt.

People were also invited to gather at squares in towns and cities across the country to mark what was billed as the “Democracy and Martyrs’ Rally”.

A huge wall was erected at the rally site listing the names of the 240 civilians killed during the coup attempt. The names were listed under a banner that read: “The nation is grateful to you.”

The military’s top commanders were also invited and attended, in a poignant message that the country’s armed forces as a whole were not being held responsible for the coup attempt.  

Sunday’s rally also marked the first time that leaders of opposition parties joined Erdogan and the ruling AKP, represented by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, to address crowds at the same event.

Officials have continuously issued calls that people only carry the Turkish flag and do not publicly display any particular party affiliations.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Devlet Bahceli of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) attended the rally after receiving personal invitations from Erdogan.

“I thank you very much for this display of solidarity. We are Turkey today, 15 July was an attempt at occupation, 15 July was our second war of independence,” Yildirim said. “Every blow that doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger.”

Yildirim said the government would not be motivated by revenge, but by the desire to see justice served. He also said it would never forsake democracy.

“We need to learn why we reached this point to be able to find a solution. We all need to draw lessons from this [coup attempt]. We need to keep politics out of the mosque, court and barracks,” Kilicdaroglu said.

Kilicdaroglu stressed the importance of the republic and secularism for Turkey.

“If we didn’t have a republic then Recep Tayyip Erdogan would not be president today.”

The leader of the MHP, Bahceli, spoke about traitors and the perceived external and internal threats facing the Turkish nation.

“You stood tall in the face of plots to divide us. You defended our fraternity. You put the terrorists in their place. You refused to accept defeat. You have announced the start of a new resistance. The nation is here. The will is here,” Bahceli said. “No traitor can defeat us as long as we maintain this spirit.”

Both opposition leaders had marked another first earlier in the month when they visited Erdogan at the lavish presidential palace in the wake of the failed coup attempt.

Kilicdaroglu, who had reservations about attending the rally in person, fearing that it would be seen as an endorsement of the post-coup crackdown and of actions taken as part of the state of emergency, was convinced to attend after receiving a second call and invitation from Yildrirm.

The CHP has voiced concern about using the powers granted by the state of emergency to make crucial structural changes to the system of government and to the Turkish armed forces.

Decrees issued under the state of emergency carry the weight of law, and Kilicdaroglu has said that he feels any major changes should be made by parliament instead of by a few people issuing decrees.

Turkey’s Western allies have voiced concern over the speed and scale of the post-coup crackdown, which has seen thousands of people detained, dismissed or suspended from their jobs on suspicion of being linked to the Fethullah Gulen movement.

Gulen, a Turkish preacher who resides in the United States, is accused by Ankara of being the mastermind behind the botched coup attempt.

Authorities say Gulen’s followers have infiltrated every part of the state and are seeking to topple Turkey’s constitutionally legitimate system and government.

In a surprise speech, Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar told the crowd: “Those who brought this severe shame on our nation and honourable armed forces will pay the price. Let no one be in doubt about that.”

This rally of unity had one glaring absence: the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP). No invitation was extended to the leaders of the third-largest political party in parliament.

The HDP opposed the attempted coup from the start but was never acknowledged by Erdogan.

On Saturday, Erdogan explained this lack of outreach to the HDP by saying he was unwilling to differentiate between those who attempt a coup and terrorism.

“I would be unable to explain myself to the families of martyrs and to veterans if I invited people who cooperate with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party],” he said.

Gursel Tekin, an Istanbul MP from the CHP, said it was unfortunate that the HDP, which got 6.5 million votes in the last election, was excluded from the rally.

“This sends the wrong message to the world. This rally is significant in terms of solidarity, but then we spoil it slightly with such an exclusion,” Tekin said.

Kilicdaroglu said: “All four political parties opposed the coup. I wish that every single one of our party leaders was here on this important day.”

The rally also signalled an end to regular nightly gatherings called “democracy watches” in central areas across the country. These gatherings were in response to calls by Turkish officials - fearing a continuation of the putsch in some manner - to remain vigilant.