By Howard Eissenstat
Corrupt, egomaniacal and repressive, there is not much to recommend Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s rule – save the inescapable fact that he is the democratically elected head of state. And that he is a politician who shines brightest in a fight.
Erdogan is not going to give up. He has millions of supporters who will give their lives for him. He has the support of all the opposition parties. And, because he’s won three elections – he is in the right.
Friday night, the streets of Istanbul were filled with people. Mosques in Turkey had been calling the people into the street. Erdogan was giving the same message on national television – through a FaceTime linkup. One man later shouts back at the television screen, “I am a Kurd from Bingol and I will die [for you].” Early Saturday morning, Erdogan again appears on television, now surrounded by supporters at the Istanbul airport. There are continued reports of jets buzzing Ankara and Istanbul.
Turkey’s military has long felt a sense of ownership of the country. Its first leaders, Kemal Atatürk and İsmet İnonu, were former generals. After democratic elections in 1950, Turkey experienced three military coups – in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Each was bloodier and more repressive than the last.
In 1997, the military staged what has been called a “post-modern coup”, and sent then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan packing with a memo. There was nothing “post-modern” about the coup attempt that shook Turkey Friday night. Military units were in the streets, main arteries were shut down.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a centre-right party with roots in political Islam, has dominated Turkish politics since 2002. It only came to power by facing off with the military. In 2007, generals attempted to repeat their 1997 success with a “midnight memorandum”, which condemned the candidacy of AKP politician Abdullah Gul, a close ally of Erdogan, as the next president of the republic.
Erdogan, however, faced the generals down, and Gul took his place in the presidential palace until Erdogan was elected to the post seven years later.
Erdogan quickly reconfigured the largely ceremonial post into a powerful job. At one point, AKP leadership played an important role and could challenge Erdogan on policy issues. No longer. Ministers serve at the president’s pleasure. Policy is determined in a new and grandiose presidential palace. Erdogan has made clear that his ambition is to change the constitution to create a presidential system that would render into law what is already political reality.
For years, Erdogan has waged war against the military: Hundreds of officers were targeted under trumped-up charges, others were forced into retirement. Meanwhile, the police and intelligence services were strengthened to act as a counter-weight to the military.
In the past two years, however, it seemed that Erdogan and the military had come to terms. Certainly, they united in waging their no-holds-barred war on the resurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds. It has levelled whole neighbourhoods, with no end in sight.
It was clear, however, that many officers were unhappy with Erdogan. They were resentful of the abuse their comrades had faced in the show trials. Many believed that the violence of the conflict with the PKK was a result, in part, of the AKP’s earlier negotiations with the group.
At some military funerals, officers often specifically blamed Erdogan for the soldiers’ deaths. They reasonably viewed the rise of jihadi violence in Turkey as the cost of the AKP’s tolerance of jihadi groups in the Syrian civil war. Like many secularists, they feared a creeping dismantling of Turkey’s secularism.
The press has largely been cowed; judicial independence mostly broken. Perhaps some in the military believed that this was their last chance to halt Erdogan’s consolidation of power.
A successful coup would likely be a disaster. The result could be a civil war. The Obama administration was slow off the mark in condemning the coup attempt, but it is a positive sign that it finally did so.
The coup apparently isn’t entirely over yet. But it seems already broken. Major generals have condemned it and many soldiers have returned to their barracks. If a successful coup would have led to chaos, a failed coup would likely result in even greater repression and centralisation of power.
Friday night’s events will likely solidify Erdogan’s worst tendencies. Moreover, by apparently facing down the coup, Erdogan has effectively burnished his own brand as a man of the people.
On social media, conspiracy theories suggest that the “coup” was staged theatre, orchestrated so that Erdogan could gain more support and take greater control. This seems nonsense. But the essential point is correct: If Erdogan has prevailed he has been made far stronger.
Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of history at St Lawrence University, is an expert on Turkey and its influence in the region