Turkey’s democracy is dead. It was dying anyway, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan took over media outlets, arrested political opponents and journalists, and even re-started a war with the Kurds last autumn in order to win an election. But once part of the army launched a coup attempt on Friday night, it was dead no matter which way the crisis ended.
It wasn’t a very competent coup attempt. The first rule of coup-making is: arrest or kill the person you are trying to overthrow. The coup leaders should have been able to grab Erdogan, who was on holiday at the seaside resort of Marmaris, but they didn’t.
They didn’t shut down the internet and social media either, so Erdogan was able to use his cellphone to get a message out on FaceTime, calling on his supporters to defy the soldiers on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. They didn’t even shut down the broadcast media that sent Erdogan’s call out to the public.
It was three hours before they occupied the offices of TRT, the state broadcaster, and they were chased out again by Erdogan less than an hour later. They didn’t even try to shut down the private television networks, which have a much bigger audience.
The second rule of coup-making is: act as if you mean it. This usually means that you have to be willing to kill people – but the colonels behind the coup (the generals were all vetted by Erdogan’s people) were largely reluctant to use lethal force.
This is laudable, in human terms, but if you are trying to overthrow the rule of a ruthless man who aspires to absolute control, it is a very bad mistake. They took control of Istanbul airport, but they were chased out again by Erdogan’s supporters because they were not willing to shoot them – and Erdogan flew back into the city.
Maybe the coup-makers were just too short of troops to grab control of everything they needed to make the coup work. Maybe, also, they were afraid to order their troops to carry out a massacre because Turkey’s is a conscript army, and many of its young soldiers – basically civilians in uniform for one year – might simply refuse to kill their fellow citizens.
At any rate, they didn’t use massive violence in Istanbul, and so they were soon in retreat. But there can be no happy ending to this episode.
Democracy would obviously have been dead if the rebels won. Almost exactly half of Turkey’s voters backed Erdogan in the last election, so a military regime would have had to stay in power for a long time. It would not have dared to hold a free election and risk Erdogan returning to power.
It would have been equally dead if the coup had partially succeeded and the army had really split, for that would have meant civil war. Mercifully that possibility has now disappeared, but democracy will be dead in Turkey even if the coup is utterly defeated.
A triumphant Erdogan will seize this opportunity to complete his take-over of all the major state organisations and the media, and become (as his followers often call him) the “Sultan” of Turkey. That is a tragedy, because five or ten years ago Turkey seemed well on the way to being the sort of democracy, with free media and the rule of law, where a coup like this was simply inconceivable.
When Erdogan won his first election in 2002, promising to remove all the restrictions that pious Muslims suffered under the rigidly secular constitution, it seemed a reasonable step forward in the democratisation process. He kept his promises about that, but gradually he went further, trying to Islamise the country against the strong opposition of the half of the population that favours a secular state.
Luckily for Erdogan the Turkish economy was booming, so he went on winning elections – and he worked steadily to concentrate all power in his own office. He removed any officials who were not his avid supporters, attacked the freedom of the media, and committed Turkey to unconditional support for the Islamist rebels in neighbouring Syria.
The rebel army officers may have been trying to stop all that, but it was a terrible mistake for which they will suffer severe punishment. So will anybody who is even suspected of having sympathised with them, and Erdogan will emerge as the all-powerful “Sultan” of a post-democratic Turkey.
The coup leaders made the same mistake as the Egyptian liberals made when they asked the army to overthrow the elected president there in 2013. Egypt had a president whom they feared and hated, but they also had a democracy which provided a peaceful means of ousting him.
Erdogan’s popularity would have dwindled with time. The Turkish economy is stagnant, his Syrian policy is a disaster, and the flagrant corruption of the people around him is getting hard to ignore. Sooner or later he would have lost an election. But like the Egyptian liberals, the officers who led the Turkish coup didn’t trust democracy enough to wait.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.