The coup attempt late last week by elements in the Turkish military to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan failed, although more than 230 lives were lost in the incident and roughly 1,500 people were injured. Now, as the cleanup begins and efforts are made to root out the sources of unrest, there is a real danger that Erdogan will use the failed coup to further consolidate power in his own hands, neutralize institutions designed to check that tendency and truly undermine Turkey’s democracy.
The incident began Friday afternoon when tanks blocked two of the bridges over the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, attempting to cut off the city. Other military vehicles were on the streets, at key locations and buildings, while planes and helicopters flew low over the city and in the capital of Ankara. Members of an army-backed “peace council” announced that they had launched a coup “to ensure and restore constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms” and was now running the country.
Erdogan, reportedly on holiday away from the capital, used his cell phone — the plotters had seized the state television studios — to contact CNN Turk, which broadcast his call for Turkish citizens to fight the revolt. Upon his return to the airport in Istanbul, he denounced the coup as “treason and a rebellion” as fighting broke out across Ankara, Istanbul and other key cities. As other elements of the military that had not joined the coup turned their forces against the rebels, the revolt collapsed.
Calling the uprising “a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army,” Erdogan has already begun to use the incident to purge the military and the judiciary. The government says it has arrested more than 6,000 people of all ranks from the military, including some who formed “the backbone” of the coup attempt.
Turkey has a long history of military involvement in politics. The military has considered itself the guardian of the country’s secular democracy since the modern state of Turkey was established in 1923. That self-appointed role has produced three coups — in 1960, 1971 and 1980 — and an “intervention” in 1997 that ended a coalition government headed by an Islamist prime minister.
Turkey’s democracy was supposed to have outgrown that interventionist impulse; the fact that an Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has run the country since 2002, and Erdogan had remained the national leader was taken as proof that Islamic parties, democracy and Turkey’s secular traditions could co-exist.
That equilibrium has become increasingly fragile, however. Erdogan is working to make the presidency a more powerful institution and seeks to more deeply root Islamic policies in the fabric of government and daily life. He is amassing power in the executive branch and doing all he can to undermine the institutions and the individuals that he considers a challenge to his authority. To that end, he has dismissed judges who have questioned his policies, attempted to silence critics in the media, and launched campaigns ostensibly against corruption in the military but which are generally seen as efforts to remove any opposition to his policies.
It is still not clear who was behind the coup attempt. It is thought that the main movers are a small faction within the army that include leaders of the First and Second Armies. Erdogan insists, however, that there is a “parallel state” within Turkey, one that has adherents throughout the government and institutions of life in the country. This organization is allegedly headed by a former ally of his, Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who went into exile in the United States after the two men fell out. Gulen has denied any involvement in the coup — he condemned “in the strongest terms, the attempted military coup in Turkey” — as well as any other anti-Erdogan campaign. Erdogan remains unconvinced and has demanded his extradition from the U.S.
In the meantime, the government is reported to have suspended more than 10,000 people in connection with the failed coup, including generals and colonels, police officials, as well as judges, including a member of the constitutional court. The president is certain to use the events of last week to push still harder for legislation that will further consolidate his power and unleash his authoritarian tendencies. The wave of terror attacks that have struck Turkey in recent weeks may help him make the case for a stronger executive.
Erdogan is also likely to step up pressure against the U.S., which he believes is working with Gulen to push him out of office. Failure to extradite the cleric will confirm that belief on the part of the Turkish president. The centrality of Turkey to efforts to contain the civil war in neighboring Syria as well as the role it plays in stopping or channeling refugees onto Europe will also encourage Erdogan to play hard ball with foreign critics. Erdogan is a brilliant political tactician but there is a real danger that he will overplay his hand at this crucial moment, to the detriment of his people, his country and the region.
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