Elements within the Turkish military attempted a coup against Recep Erdogan beginning late yesterday afternoon (near midnight in Istanbul). Reports exploded across social media, and the situation was unclear for many hours. I heard that the coup had failed, that Erdogan was fleeing to Germany, that the army declared victory. By morning here in Texas, however, it was clear that Erdogan triumphed. The military lost, their coup defeated.
The events occur within the context of Erdogan morphing, step by step, into a more autocratic figure. Observers will note this change through the President’s efforts to change the political structure of Turkey from a mixed parliamentary/presidential system to a pure presidential system. Such a move would expand Erdogan’s powers as president and permit him to carry out his party’s (the AKP) electoral agenda with less resistance from the opposition.
It was not the putschists’ goal to oppose this development on a democratic basis. One could merely point at the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, to refute the army if they had sallied forth against tyranny for the sake of democracy and the will of the people. What matters in this case is Erdogan acting as the strongman that the army wants, not what Erdogan’s constituents want.
Tensions exist within the Turkish army on this ground. It is important to remember this in light of the fact that it was a faction (and a small one at that) that attempted yesterday’s putsch. To rewind the clock some 13 years, Erdogan, in 2003, purged high-ranking members of the armed forces who favored the overseer role for the military in public life and an public imprimatur for secularism.
The army, though, favors secularism (a fact since its establishment under Ataturk). President Erdogan, from the time of his election to the presidency of the Turkish Republic, plays the religious card. Under his purview, he promoted trends against secularism with restrictions on alcohol production, permissiveness for the headscarf.
The timing of this failed coup comes at an anxious time for Turkey. It faces the challenge of war on ISIS on its southern border and the resultant refugee crisis from the borderlands to the Aegean coast (your correspondent spoke with two Syrian refugees when he visited Istanbul this past March). Erdogan himself has faced challenges to his administration from a vocal opposition. The 2013 demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Istiklal Square morphed from a protest against the construction of a neo-Ottoman styled mall to Erdogan’s (himself cast as a neo-Ottoman sultan) increasingly autocratic tactics.
Yesterday’s events only help Erdogan. A military coup is a drastic action in any society. For it to succeed, citizens must be willing to accept the legitimacy of the coup. Legitimacy was not found last night in the crowds that poured forth (after Erdogan and his PM’s call on social media) to protest the ongoing coup. People who may have been on the fence about Erdogan will have their sympathy turned for him because of the coup. In turn, Erdogan will possess more leeway to increase the powers of the presidency (he’s already sacked some 2,500 judges and floated the reinstatement of the death penalty). Against his political enemies, he can sully and tarnish them as collaborators, intolerable threats to the state. Whatever the next days hold for Turkey, a healthy democratic process is not one of them.