Monday, July 18, 2016

Turkey's Failed Coup Attempt Will Be a Pretext for Erdogan to Seize Further Power

Originally published at Vocal Europe

What should have been an ordinary summer Friday evening in Turkey soon turned surreal. For some Istanbul residents, this meant a disruption to their plans of enjoying a quiet evening with a magazine and a cup of cocoa, but matters were far more serious for many other Turks.

Events soon revealed that an attempted military coup against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was evidently underway. This attempted coup was so poorly organized and limited in scope that many Turks did not initially recognize it as such; early social media reports suspected a mobilization against a potential imminent terror attack. A televised announcement by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım soon declared that it was an attempted military uprising, but his presence on television highlighted the limited scope and organization of this coup. Things turned even stranger when Erdoğan appeared on a television program via the smart phone application FaceTime to urge national resistance to the coup. In a somewhat ironic twist, he urged his supporters to take to the streets to block the coup (his government is quite heavy-handed in its efforts to stop opposition protests), and social media (which he has frequently criticized) was unblocked and used to this end.

The piecemeal nature of the coup, and the ease with which it was stopped, has led many observers to speculate that it was ‘theater.’ Their speculation is that Erdoğan staged the coup as a pretext to seize further power—comparing it to the Reichstag fire of 1933. That Erdoğan’s government seemed better prepared to respond to the coup than the coup-plotters did to carry it out added to the conspiracy theories. A more plausible answer is that coup was planned by a relatively small group of officers facing a purge during Turkey’s annual military reorganization in August, and perhaps other factors undermined their effectiveness or forced them to initiate the coup before they were ready.
In any case, one positive of the evening—Turkey’s three main opposition parties all condemned the coup, as did most of Turkish society and the media—are overwhelmed by the many negatives. Many were killed or injured in the fighting, and various state and media buildings were damaged.

Regardless of the true nature of the coup, the aftermath is predictable. In calling the coup ‘a gift from Allah,’ Erdoğan meant that it gave him the opportunity to purge the military and other state institutions of ‘coup plotters,’ which will be broadly interpreted to many any and all suspected domestic opponents. Erdoğan blamed the coup on his former political allies in the Gülen movement, but his retribution will surely go much further. Those purges of the military and the judiciary began quickly on Saturday, and they will undoubtedly continue.

Beyond those purges, observers should expect to see further legislative activity to centralize power, including a renewed push to create Erdoğan’s desired ‘presidential’ system. Turkey has descended deep into authoritarianism, but it remains competitive as society is divided nearly 50-50 between supporters of Erdoğan (and his Justice and Development Party) and supporters of the rival opposition parties. Erdoğan called the leaders of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to thank them for their rejection of the coup, but he did not call the leaders of the Kurdish-linked Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). A crackdown on HDP may well follow. This crackdown is also likely to extend to the media, though much of it is already dominated by the government. The end result will be a political system in which there are fewer institutions with the capacity to block Erdoğan’s initiatives and fewer people left who would do so.

In one sense, the international media’s depiction of Friday as a victory for democracy in Turkey is not wrong. Turkey can never fully democratize as long as the military holds the ability to interfere in domestic politics, as it has on numerous past occasions. So the widespread political and popular rejection of military intervention is a positive development. But the more immediate result of this failed coup will be to empower Erdoğan further, and push Turkey further into authoritarianism. If military intervention has been one impediment of Turkey’s democratization, then the tendency of elected leaders to centralize power and eliminate opposition has been the other. The prospects of reversing that trend in the new future are dim.