Why Erdogan Shouldn't Double Down on Dictatorship After the Coup Attempt
Unfortunately for them, this turned out to be a costly miscalculation. Politicians of all hues, including the secularists, the ultranationalists and even those fighting for Kurdish autonomy, joined in condemning the coup attempt and asking their followers to resist it. This demonstrated that Turkey’s political culture has changed tremendously during the past twenty years, and that Erdoğan’s most strident critics consider him a lesser evil when compared to rule by a military junta.
Another explanation is based on the theory that the senior officers among the coup plotters were already in the crosshairs of the government and would have been removed from their strategic positions next month at the meeting of the Supreme Military Council, which convenes every August to consider military appointments. This could well have been the case except that it still leaves unexplained why these officers were due for removal. Was it because they were suspected as Gulen sympathizers or as staunchly Kemalist and, therefore, viscerally anti-AKP? No answers have been provided so far.
But why did the coup fail? One obvious reason also referred to above was the fact that the military high command refused to endorse the coup and, in fact, actively opposed it. Consequently, the loyal military’s superior fire power could be used by the authorities to defeat the putschists. The police and the intelligence services also stood by the government and were utilized to bring the coup-makers to heel. This is a heartening development, because it clearly demonstrates a major transformation of Turkey’s political culture and the almost habitual acceptance on the part of the security services of civilian supremacy.
However, the course of events may still have gone in the opposite direction had it not been for the massive popular response to Erdoğan’s call for ordinary citizens to go out on the streets and confront the rebels, at considerable risk to themselves, especially at strategic points such as Taksim Square and the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul and Parliament House in Ankara. This was a clear signal not only to the putschists, but to the military high command as well that the people of Turkey, whether they liked Erdoğan or not, were willing to risk their all to prevent military rule. This was openly acknowledged by Chief of General Staff General Hulusi Akar in a written statement on July 17 in which he said, “The biggest role in preventing this treacherous act belongs to our honorable people.” The statement went on to say that many members of the public took to the streets to protect “the real members of the Turkish Armed Forces” and to foil the coup, which it said would have dealt a serious blow to Turkey’s democracy.
The popular demonstration of support for the elected government buttressed by the fact that all opposition parties, who have no love for Erdoğan and vociferously opposed the coup clearly sent the message that Turkish citizens and political actors of all hues were opposed to the coup attempt and firmly wedded to civilian rule. Now, it is up to President Erdoğan to determine what lessons he draws from this episode. He can become more paranoid, as most analysts expect, and use even harsher measures against all opponents whether connected with the coup or not and thus continue down the road to increased authoritarianism.
Alternatively, he can learn the real lesson of this tragic affair which is that the Turkish people’s commitment to democracy cuts across party lines and that he owes an immense debt of gratitude to all opposition parties who stood by his government during its darkest hour, when its future hung in the balance. If he draws the latter lesson it will help to curb his authoritarian tendencies, reduce his political vindictiveness, give up the dream of an all-powerful presidency, obey the rule of law and leave his mark as the “great democratizer” in Turkish history. If he does not, then next time, sooner rather than later, the “people’s power” may well turn against him. If that happens, even the armed forces, who must also have drawn their own lessons from this episode, will not come to his rescue.
Mohammed Ayoob is Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University.
Image: a stoic Erdoğan. Flickr.