Following the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue to rule the Turkish government under a crumbling guise of conservative democracy. In reality, Erdoğan has gradually positioned himself as an autocratic ruler and his policies have increasingly integrated religion and politics.
The coup exposed the bubbling subterranean political tensions between supporters and detractors of Erdoğan’s government and gave rise to a myriad of uncertainties with no simple solutions. In some instances, a look at Turkey’s past foreshadows its future; in others, there is no precedent for the next steps.
Should we have seen the coup coming?
The modern Turkish state was established under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk.” His secular reformations largely allowed the Turkish nation to exercise popular sovereignty through representative democracy, effectively abolishing the Ottoman millet structure which allowed for a high degree of religious ideology to be incorporated into the administrative, political, and economic system.
To this day, the military perceives itself as the protector of Ataturk’s progressive vision known as Kemalism. As the guardian of the Turkish republic, the military has intervened in Turkish politics on several occasions in an ongoing effort to maintain a secular government. The military’s outspoken role in Turkish politics can be seen as one indicator of Erdoğan and the AKP’s step outside the bounds of democracy.
Erdoğan appeared to be a model for secularism and democracy in the eyes of the West during his first term as Prime Minister between 2003 and 2007. Political and economic successes were instrumental in forming a guise of legitimacy for the then Prime Minister and his party, who sought to consolidate power while arguably concealing their forthcoming Islamist intentions. Not everyone in Turkey backed the AKP’s new liberal order; the Kemalists and the military were particularly suspicious of a hidden agenda. In 2005, the pursuit of European Union membership became an increasingly questionable justification for the implementation of (what were perceived to be) pro-Islamist policies. In fact, accession talks with the EU were suspended in 2006 based on Turkey’s failure to satisfy obligations such as opening its ports to trade with Cyprus, acknowledging the Armenian genocide, and making reforms to uphold freedoms of expression, press and religion among others. The Turkish Armed Forces’ mounting disapproval of the AKP was openly broadcasted in a 2007 “e-coup” in which the military warned that it would not hesitate to defend secularism if necessary.
In response to intensified polarization and growing tension with Kemalist supporters and the military, the AKP adopted constitutional amendments in 2010 that permitted the party to restructure the highest judiciary organs. The expansion of positions in the Constitutional Court and Supreme Council of Judges – positions traditionally comprised of Kemalists – meant Kemalist ideologies may no longer dominate the rule of law or, consequentially, have control over the AKP.
The declining power of the judiciary corresponds with a decline in military influence. Shortly after the AKP won an unprecedented third consecutive majority in parliament in 2011, the military’s chief of staff resigned, the heads of the army, navy, and air force requested early retirement, and approximately half of the military’s admirals were jailed on charges of plotting against the government. Consolidating supremacy over the judiciary and military would finally allow the AKP to implement its’ suspected hidden agenda.
Should the world have seen the military coup coming? Erdoğan undoubtedly did. Despite his efforts to clear his political path from Kemalist and secularist opposition, Erdoğan was unable to eliminate all that sought to protect the founding principles of the modern Turkish state.
Now, following the failed uprising, President Erdoğan is perfectly positioned to purge the judiciary and army of opposition forces at much faster rate, which he not-so-cunningly justifies as necessary to keep the country from falling apart. Authorities immediately began to round up over six thousand alleged coup-plotters who, Erdoğan vowed, will pay a heavy price for their involvement. However, history hints that this will not be the last military coup in Turkey.
Who is to blame?
The government’s list of most-wanted enemies includes Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who currently lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and runs a movement committed to preserving the secular government Ataturk laid out in the Turkish constitution. He is known as an influential figure in the liberalization of modern Islam and a supporter of multi-party democracy. Formerly, Gulen and Erdoğan were political allies but turned bitter rivals in 2013 after major corruption investigations revealed malpractice from officials and supporters of the AKP party. Erdoğan blamed the affair on Gulen’s movement, which by that time was in apparent opposition to the president’s autocratic tendencies.
Many believe that the Gulen movement has established a parallel state in Turkey, which operates informally through a network of think-tanks, private schools, media organizations, publications, and for-profit health clinics. Since his split with Gulen, Erdoğan and the AKP have targeted suspected supporters of the movement by dismissing and jailing judges, police officers, academics, and journalists. It came as no surprise to Gulen supporters when Erdoğan blamed the cleric as the mastermind of the July 15 coup, though Gulen denies any involvement in the uprising.
One cannot help but wonder if the coup was plotted by the state as a ploy to further purge Kemalist and Gulenist supporters from positions of authority. The conspiracy does not seem far-fetched as the number of suspected critics arrested by the government continues to rise on a daily basis. Should Gulen be extradited back to Turkey, Erdoğan would win a decisive battle in his quest to cleanse the Turkish army and the state of secularists.
The question of who plotted the coup is still under investigation. From Erdoğan’s perspective, the investigation is a matter of tracking down (thousands of) individuals accused of conspiring against the government, principally Gulen and his supporters. On the other hand, one cannot rule out the possibility that the state devised the takeover as a self-serving scheme to consolidate Erdoğan’s repressive regime.
There is no media freedom in Turkey; those who dare to dig into the truth of the latter notion risk detainment, fines, deportation, or even assassination. For now, we must wait, and hope, that the truth is uncovered and democracy is restored in Turkey.