President Tayyip Erdogan told a rally of more than one million people on Sunday that July’s failed coup would be a milestone in building a stronger Turkey, defying 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 sea of red Turkish flags read “You are a gift from God, Erdogan” and “Order us to die 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 grief that things would be more difficult from now on,” Erdogan said of the July 15 abortive coup, 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 the judiciary, and throw the others out of the door.”
The parade ground, built to hold more than a million people, was overflowing, with the streets of surrounding neighborhoods clogged by crowds. 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 tens of thousands of people, 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.
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 overthrow the state.
Erdogan said he would approve the restoration of the death penalty 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 ally of Erdogan in the early years after his Islamist-rooted AK Party took power in 2002 – has denied any involvement in the coup, which came at a critical time for a NATO “frontline” state facing Islamist militant attacks from across the border in Syria and an insurgency 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.