It is hard to overstate the extent to which fears of a military coup have animated Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s actions as a politician. Conservative and religious Turks have lived for decades under the shadow of the 1960 coup that deposed and executed Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, whom Erdogan frequently refers to as a martyred hero and a cautionary tale. The 1997 “postmodern” coup that deposed Erdogan’s political mentor, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, and led to Erdogan’s subsequent imprisonment and suspension from politics for religious incitement only reinforced the notion among non-elite Turks that the old secular establishment, of which the army was the cornerstone, would never fully cede power.
It was only when Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) co-founder Abdullah Gül won their 2007 stare-down with the military over Gül’s candidacy for president (which the army opposed because Gül’s wife wore a headscarf), that Erdogan seemed to gain the upper hand and be in position to alter the balance of power with the army for good.
This is the context for the recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which the government accused Turkish officers of plotting a series of coups and false-flag attacks designed to overthrow the AKP regime—trials that decimated Turkey’s military ranks and that were also subsequently overturned when some of the convictions were found to be based on fabricated evidence.
It is also the context for Erdogan’s fetishization of elections and his majoritarian theory of governance. Both as prime minister and as president, Erdogan repeatedly expressed that elections confer ultimate power and allow the government to take any actions that it likes. Although such attitudes were partly a way of dismissing Turkey’s largely feckless opposition parties, they were also the ultimate line of defense against the military. Erdogan never felt safe from the long arm of the military and always saw the next coup right around the corner. He thus classified every challenge as
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