Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
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 a plot, whether it came from the military, his former Gülen movement allies, or even from unarmed protestors in Gezi Park.
Erdogan believed that he could get away with such characterizations as long as he could point to high margins of victory on election day and mobilize his supporters in impressive shows of popular strength. These would make it difficult for the military to continue its tradition of intervening in Turkish politics; to overthrow Erdogan and the AKP would be to take on a leader with unprecedented popularity and a party that had been extraordinarily successful.
This is not to say that the coup’s failure will be a victory for democracy either.So it was a surprise on Friday, when tanks rolled through the streets of Istanbul, F-16s flew low over Ankara, and a new entity calling itself the Peace at Home Council announced on Turkish state television that it had taken over the country. Suddenly, it seemed that Erdogan’s worst fears had been realized and that his efforts to coup-proof Turkey had provoked exactly what he was guarding against.
Some observers seemed to cheer the coup-in-the-making. But the fact that Erdogan has become increasingly autocratic over time and has systematically hollowed out the Turkish state does not mean that the coup would have in any way been a victory for democracy. Coups are not popular revolutions; they are fundamentally illiberal and are generally disastrous for a country’s long-term political development. Turkey is certainly no exception.
Indeed, another coup would not have been a magic elixir for Turkish democracy. In the best-case scenario, it would have simply led to a different type of authoritarianism than Turkey has now. In the worst-case scenario, it would have sparked a civil war. That Turkey’s opposition parties all denounced the coup well before the outcome was clear (rather than embracing it as an opportunity to get rid of Erdogan and the AKP for good), tells you all you need to know about how the majority of Turks view the canard that a coup would be politically restorative.
This is not to say that the coup’s failure will be a victory for democracy either. Erdogan has spent over a decade speaking about plots to overturn the will of the people. His constant warnings now look prophetic rather than paranoid. That’s why, according to a widely held theory in Turkey, Erdogan planned and orchestrated the failed coup as a way to consolidate power. This story is far-fetched—keeping such an operation secret would be hard and convincing hundreds to die for it even harder—but it is certain that Erdogan will be the primary beneficiary of the attempt.
From now on, Erdogan will not only be the president who successfully beat back an attempt to overthrow him—he will also be the one who was right all along. No matter that his past purges of the army and his ongoing war against his unsavory Gülenist adversaries made his prophecy self-fulfilling; when he now insists on a new constitution that enshrines a presidential system and eviscerates any meaningful checks and balances and uses civilian dominance over the military as a justification, few will be left to object. Erdogan’s constant references to the will of the people do not mean that the project on which he now embarks will be democratic.
The bumbling and incompetent coup plotters thought that they were going to remake the Turkish state, and their actions will succeed in doing so—but not in the way that they envisioned. Much as some American politicians on both sides of the aisle still tout their opposition to the Iraq War as evidence of their supreme foreign policy judgment in every situation, Erdogan is going to use the events of this past weekend as a justification to get anything he wants for the remainder of his political reign. That includes a new constitution, a crackdown on and purge of all opposition (coup-related and otherwise), or a looming showdown with the United States. As high as Erdogan was riding before, his position is all the higher.