ISTANBUL, Aug 7( Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan told a rally of more than one million people on Sunday that July’s failed takeover would be a milestone in building a stronger Turkey, eluding Western criticism of mass purges and vowing to destroy those behind the putsch.
The “Democracy and Martyrs’ Rally” at the Yenikapi parade ground, built into the sea on the southern edge of Istanbul, was a show of strength by Erdogan, who has been angered by European criticism of his combative response to the coup and by U.S. reluctance to hand over the man he accuses of masterminding it.
Banners in a ocean of red Turkish flags read “You are a gift from God, Erdogan” and “Order us to succumb and we will do it.” It was the first time in decades that opposition leaders joined a rally in support of the government, with pockets of secularists, nationalists and others alongside his core Islamist supporters.
“That night, our enemies who were rubbing their hands in anticipation of Turkey’s downfall woke up the next morning to the heartbreak that things would be more difficult from now on, ” Erdogan told of the July 15 abortive takeover, drawing parallels to times past when Turkey was occupied by foreign forces.
“From now on, we will examine very carefully who we have under us. We will see who we have in the military, who we have in members of the judiciary, and hurl the others out of the door.”
The parade ground, built to hold more than a million people, was overflowing, with the street of surrounding neighborhoods clogged by mob. One presidency official put the numbers at around five million and the event was broadcast live on public screens at smaller rallies across Turkey’s 81 provinces.
Since the coup bid, Turkish authorities have suspended, detained or placed under investigation thousands and thousands of people, including soldiers, police, magistrates, journalists, medics and civil servants, inspiring concern among Western allies that Erdogan is utilizing the events to tighten his grip on power.
Erdogan 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 subvert the state.
Erdogan said he would approve the restoration of the capital punishment if parliament voted for it, a move which would sink any hopes of European Union membership. Shrugging off EU concerns, he said much of the rest of the world had capital punishment.
Gulen – an friend of Erdogan in the early years after his Islamist-rooted AK Party took power in 2002 – has denied any involvement in the takeover, which came at a critical time for a NATO “frontline” state facing Islamist militant assaults from across the border in Syria and an rebellion by Kurdish rebels.
In a rare appearance at a public rally, military chief Hulusi Akar said the “traitors” behind the plot would be punished and he thanked civilians for their role in putting it down. Many of the more than 240 people killed on July 15 were civilians who tried to prevent the takeover of power.
The leader of the main secularist opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said a “new door of compromise” had been opened and that politics must be kept out of the mosques, courthouses and barracks. “There is a new Turkey after July 15, ” he said.
“FREEDOM OR DEATH”
Erdogan, a polarizing figure watched by foes as intolerant of dissent, invited the heads of the secularist and nationalist opposition parties to address the crowds in a showing of national unity in defiance of Western criticism.
“We’re here been demonstrated that these flags won’t come down, the call to prayer won’t be stillness and our country won’t be divided, ” told Haci Mehmet Haliloglu, 46, international civil servants who traveled from the Black Sea town of Ordu for the rally.
“This is something way beyond politics, this is either our liberty or death, ” he said, a large Turkish flag over his shoulder and a matching baseball cap on his head.
Turkey’s top Muslim cleric and chief rabbi also attended. But the pro-Kurdish HDP, the third-largest party in parliament, was not invited due to its alleged links to Kurdish activists, prompting anger on social media from its supporters.
The brutality of July 15, in which rascal soldiers hijacked fighter jets, helicopters and tanks, shocked a nation that last find a violent military power grab in 1980. Even Erdogan’s adversaries considered his leadership as preferable to a successful coup renewing the cycle of military interventions that dogged Turkey in the second half of the 20 th century.
“Erdogan has been brutal and unfair to us in the past, but I believe he has now understood the real importance of the republic’s values, ” said Ilhan Girit, 44, a musician and CHP supporter, carrying a flag of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern secular republic.
A convoy of patriots on motorbikes passed as he spoke.
Such solidarity may not last. There are already opposition concerns that the restructuring of the military lacks parliamentary oversight and is going too far, with thousands of soldiers discharged, including around 40 percent of generals.
The extent of the purges in Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest armed forces and aspires to membership of the European union, has described criticism in the West.
In commentaries published under Sunday, the leader of Germany’s liberal Free Democrats said he saw parallels between Erdogan’s behavior and the the consequences 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.
Turkish officials have angrily repudiated 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 takeover plotters than the barbarism of the events themselves.
Amid the cooling of ties with the West, Erdogan is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in St Petersburg for talks intended to end a period of tension after Turkey downed a Russian fighter airplane near the Syrian border last November.
“At the talks with my friend Vladimir, I believe, a new page in bilateral relations will be opened. Our countries have a lot to do together, ” Erdogan told the TASS news agency in an interview published under Sunday.
In Washington on Sunday several hundred people clad in red and waving Turkish flags gathered in front of the White House in support of Erdogan and to demand that U.S. President Barack Obama deport Gulen to Turkey.
“He( Erdogan) has made some mistakes but he is not a dictator, ” said Okan Sakar, 35, a Turkish tax inspector currently analyse in the United States.
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