The much heralded speech was due to start at 2.32am, the precise hour and minute that an airstrike had hit parliament during last year’s coup attempt. That was missed by 49 minutes, but there was little doubt that Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains the man of the moment in Turkey.
Tens of thousands gathered for the climax of the commemoration of that extraordinary and violent night 12 months ago. It shaped what’s happened in the country since and has had widespread repercussions beyond Turkey’s borders. There were chants, thumping music and, amid the sea of the crescent-and-star flag, photographs of those who had fallen.
Turkey is a nation divided and traumatised since the failed putsch, blamed on followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, with 50,000 people now in prison, 150,000 driven from their jobs and others who’ve fled into exile. The week preceding the anniversary had seen a fresh wave of sackings, detentions and issuing of arrest warrants.
There have been no offerings of reconciliation from President Erdogan and his ministers. In the days leading to the anniversary the government’s rhetoric became increasingly strident and aggressive, vowing to hunt down fugitives supposedly behind the coup, accusing the main opposition party of colluding with terrorists, and lashing out at the West for its criticism of the continuing purge.
That mood was reflected outside the parliament building in the capital. The name of each of the dead was read out with the crowd roaring back “here” to show their spirit lives on. This was followed by the call for vengeance: “there must be payment; we demand executions”. The sermons from the Koran which followed were about betrayal, martyrdom and resistance.
The crowd had heard that the President had made promises of tough measures earlier in the evening in Istanbul and he brought these with him on his helicopter flight to the capital. Mr Erdogan reiterated his support for the death penalty and warned that the enemy may try to strike again and thus must be eliminated. “The 15 July coup attempt was not the first attack against our country and it won’t be the last. For that reason, we’ll first rip the heads off these traitors. We will cut their heads off,” Turkey’s leader declared.
Mr Erdogan also stated that he wanted prisoners charged with coup offences to be dressed in uniforms “like in Guantanamo”. This contradicted his statement in which he raised clothing as an example of how much better off inmates were in Turkey compared to the West. “We allow our prisoners dignity. You see prisoners in US and Europe and they are taken to court in prison uniform,” he said. “Here they wear their own clothes, what they choose, they turn up in suits.”
However, he appears to have taken umbrage at one prisoner’s choice of clothing: a soldier, who appeared in court wearing a t-shirt with the motif of “hero”. The man has been accused of being part of a team which had sought to capture or kill Mr Erdogan on the night.
But it is the issue of the death penalty which causes serious problems for Turkey internationally.
Although Mr Erdogan stated that he backs “without hesitation” its reintroduction, parliament is still to vote on it.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has warned of the result of such a move: “If Turkey were to introduce the death penalty, the Turkish government would finally slam the door on EU membership.”
Mr Erdogan knew what the crowd wanted to hear: “I don’t look at what Hans and George say. I look at what Ahmet, Mehmet, Hasan, Huseyin, Ayse, Fatima and Hatice say,” he proclaimed to a loud and prolonged ovation.
The opposition parties have protested about being sidelined at the anniversary commemoration. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the Republican People’s Party, CHP, repeated a call for a public investigation into the coup and warned that the government is trying to turn the ensuing state of emergency into a permanent legal regime.
Ahmet Yildirim, the deputy chairman of the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party said that those who had been publicly against the coup have still been targeted and arrested. A dozen of the party’s leadership are in detention.
But Mr Erdogan can swat aside criticism for now.
He holds the whip hand in power and his supporters are firmly backing him, chanting his name at 4.30 in the morning as he left the venue outside parliament.
“He is our leader, he is the guide of our country,” said Husein Yilmaz, voice hoarse from the night’s exertions.
“We will not let anyone harm our country or him. You heard what the President said, we will chop of the heads of those who come against us, our enemies.”
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