Africa and the Middle East

The Turkey Coup and the Future of Turkish Democracy

July 20, 2016  • Doruk Ergun

July 15 started out as an ordinary Friday evening but it abruptly turned into a night of confusion and dread as a clique within the Turkish Armed Forces tried to stage a coup d’état. In the following hours, the lifelines of Istanbul — the two bridges uniting the Asian and European sides of town as well as Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport — were cut off. Multiple targets including the Parliament, the headquarters of the police forces and the National Intelligence Organization were struck. In tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and jets, the coup plotters targeted and seized control of military bases, municipalities, political party offices and major news channels among others, claiming the lives of dozens of civilians and police officers. More than 250 people were killed and close to 1,500 people injured, according to current numbers.

Fortunately, the attempt failed to garner the support of the vast majority of the Armed Forces, and was crushed days that followed. Still, the Turkish public, all too familiar with what a coup entails, found themselves lining up at ATMs to withdraw cash and stockpiling food and water. Some also found themselves out on the streets to protest. While military involvement and coups were major parts of Turkish political life in the not too distant past, the belief had begun to set in that the government had established a firm control over the military and therefore coups were a thing of the past. The events of July 15 gave younger generations a glimpse of one of Turkey’s long-standing problem.

The coup attempt seems to have been poorly planned and executed. Though it appears Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was targeted by the plotters, none of the Turkish political leadership was captured or co-opted. The organizers of the coup were unable to gather sufficient support and resources among the broader military ranks. They also failed to execute an effective communication strategy with the public. Most fatally, they miscalculated the reaction of many critics of the Turkish government: Even though considerable portions of the public were against the Erdogan’s government, they were vehemently against any military intervention.

It has been suggested that this coup was being planned to take place at a later time, but the plotters had to move up the schedule as they were about to face crackdowns in the upcoming days as part of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s fight against the Gülen movement. Fetullah Gülen is a controversial cleric who leads the Hizmet (the service) movement and resides in the United States since 1999. It is claimed that his movement recruits new members at a young age through indoctrination at the broad range of schools and educational institutions in Turkey and across the globe, with the ultimate long term goal of capturing Turkish politics by placing its members in high level public and private offices. While the sides were initially in very good terms, Gülen movement and Erdogan’s AKP had a falling out in 2013.

In fact, within 24 hours after the coup attempt, the country faced major purges in both military and judiciary ranks. 2,745 judges and prosecutors were detained, including some members of the country’s top judiciary board. Close to 3,000 military personnel were also detained for conspiring with the plotters and having ties to the Gülen movement. Still, many questions remain as few believed the group had this level of influence within the Armed Forces. While many theories are out there, including some questioning whether the coup was genuine or staged, but what is clear right now is that the event will have major repercussions for Turkey’s future.

Response to the Plot

Though officials say the danger may have passed, the Turkish Parliament reconvened on Saturday. In a rare sight against the backdrop of tremendous political polarization in the country, all political parties made a common declaration strongly criticizing the coup attempt. Though it is certainly a positive circumstance that all parties united in favor of democracy, the last few years have seen the country’s democratic institutions gradually and dangerously erode. Thus while the botched coup may be a conduit for unity around strengthening Turkey’s democracy, many remain pessimistic about the country’s future.

During the plot, the government implored the public to take to the streets and stand openly against the coup, using religious channels and messages in doing so. Mosques mobilized supporters through calls to prayer and religious verses. Official statements that praised the involvement of the police forces and the public in the aftermath of the crisis also had numerous religious underpinnings. The public reaction on the street mirrored this religious approach, with protestors chanting Islamic verses in public squares. Many similarities with the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow by the Egyptian military in 2013 were drawn by both the public and the media – leaving many, most notably secularists, anxious about the country’s future.

The hours that followed the attempted coup also unearthed the demons lurking in the Turkish society. There were reports of lynching of surrendered military personnel – most of whom were conscripts around the age of 19 with no say in the coup decision. There were calls for the reinstatement of capital punishment – which was removed from the constitution more than a decade ago as part of Turkey’s EU membership. These were just a few examples of the fervor of the pro-government protesters. There are shocking claims that several soldiers were thrown off the Bosphorus Bridge after they had surrendered. Video and photo imagery show multiple incidents where police who had initially responded to intervene against the military had an immensely challenging time protecting the soldiers from the angry mob after their surrender.

While the vast majority of the public opposed the coup, the violent mobs were less interested in protecting democracy than protecting an ideology. By underlining the religious aspect at every turn and not doing enough to condone the mob violence, the Turkish leadership may have created a monster it cannot control in the long term. The nightmare scenario is that this self-propagating religiosity and radicalization couples with immense levels of polarization to pave the way for ideological and sectarian tensions within the country. Turkey has witnessed many examples of such conflict and quarrel over the last decades.

Outlook for the Future

In a silver lining, the July 15 coup attempt has brought together both the political parties and the vast majority of the public, at least formally, in their support for democracy. The putsch has been criticized strongly by all political parties, the media, and people from all walks of life. This brutal undertaking, which claimed the lives of dozens of civilians, police officers and military personnel, may potentially unite the country at a time of skyrocketing political polarization and substantial erosion of public security in the face of numerous terrorism incidents over the last year.

If indeed tied to the Gülen movement, the plot might explain how dangerous religious movements with political agendas can get – and how deep the movement was able to penetrate the ranks of the armed forces. As such, it would highlight the need for all political parties to stand together in rooting out this internal threat. Regardless of who plotted the coup, the only sure way forward for the country would be the strengthening of democracy and democratic institutions.

Yet there are many pitfalls awaiting the government. Critics and pessimists worry that instead of using this as an opportunity to deepen cooperation within the Parliament, the Turkish government may continue to sideline the opposition in its bid to make major constitutional changes to serve its agenda. Instead of calling for peace and calm, it may seize the opportunity to advance such policies at a time when support for the government from its core voters was already wavering due to everything from recent rapprochements with Israel and Russia to the ongoing discussion of granting citizenship to Syrian refugees. Instead of carefully combing through the ranks of public officials, military and the police to weed out coup plotters, Turkey is already using the coup as an opportunity to make broad persecutions and intimidate political opponents, disloyal public officers and personnel, and members of the media. In other words, the current political climate may allow the government to mobilize support for its controversial policies, while making it harder for anyone to stand in opposition. Officials have already argued that the death penalty could be discussed and that it should be easier for individuals to acquire small arms to defend against potential future coups.

Both moves would risk putting Turkey on a perilous path. Instead of seizing the opportunity to further its narrow partisan agenda, the government should uphold its responsibility to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. If this is not the case, the July 15 coup attempt may be remembered as the event that hammered the last nail in the coffin of Turkish democracy.

This piece was republished from the Aspen Institute Italia.