A Victory for Democracy? On Forces Behind the Failed Coup D’état and Consequences for Democracy in Turkey

Harun Yilmaz
July 2016

The news of the calamity in Turkey reached me right after I landed at the Baku airport in Azerbaijan on the night of the failed coup d’état. When I was leaving the airport, a friend messaged me asking, "What is happening in your country?” My first guess was another big terrorist attack – something similar to the one that rocked the Istanbul Airport recently. When I checked the online media in Turkey, I was shocked.

The main question remained: Who was behind the coup? Since its founding nearly a century ago, the Turkish Republic has heavily relied on the Armed Forces of the state. The county’s generals have imagined themselves as the ultimate arbiters of politics and protectors of the Republic. They intervened whenever they felt governments had become either too leftist or too Islamist. They have overthrown four Turkish governments since 1960, not to count two failed attempts and numerous unexecuted plans. The military has had particular contempt for Prime Minister Erdogan, but the latter managed to curtail the political power of the army in the last decade.1

In the wake of the failed coup there has been a flood of commentary and speculation on the players and purposes behind the action and its aftermath. Some commentators have argued that the organizers of the coup on July 15th were the remnants of the military’s old secular order. They explain the coup’s failing by the weakness of the army and its isolation from society. If this argument is true, then, on July 16th, Erdogan received a brilliant opportunity to purge the secularists in the army. Instead Erdogan and his government insist, since the first hours of the uprising that those who organized the coup are linked to an Islamic sect led by Fethullah Gülen, an influential cleric exiled in the U.S. Indeed, after the coup arrests and dismissals were made, but these were against Gülen supporters.2

Certain theories propose narratives of a simple and impromptu revolt, where in fact the coup was far from simple, and planned to unfold in three subsequent waves. The  coup would attempt to, in the first wave, control Istanbul and Ankara, then spread it to other cities. The second wave was prevented by grounding coup jets.3  The third wave would have been the establishment of military control over the entire country. But not all army commanders supported the coup; the commander of the First Army in Istanbul supported and even protected Erdogan. The military jets loyal to the government bombed the apron of the military airbase which was controlled by the coup officers.

Armed forces behind the coup blocked major bridges, including the bridge over Bosporus. Source: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr

It is worth mentioning that Erdogan is not alone in his conclusion regarding Gülen’s involvement. Even secularist media and political parties that are staunch political rivals of Erdogan agree with him. The leadership of the army also point in the same direction. Now it is clear that most of the officers did not support the coup. The chain of command isolated the uprising minority within 24 hours. The masterminds behind the coup appear to be Gülenists, although there were some secularists involved in the uprising, too. In other words, the secular leadership of the army assisted in the suppression of the coup against Erdogan. Why did the secularist army support the Islamist Erdogan against such a coup? And why do Erdogan and the army in unison blame a Muslim sect for the coup?

It may sound paradoxical but there seems to be a tacit agreement between Erdogan and the traditional establishment, including the army leadership, which goes beyond the unity against the July 15th coup. From the first days of his premiership and now as President, Erdogan and his team have had a revisionist agenda. They wanted to alter the pillars of the Republic, from the education system to the principles of the foreign policy. While they managed to realize their agenda to a certain degree, they faced multiple problems at home and abroad.

The revisionist foreign policy caused catastrophic results. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have deteriorated. Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been damaged by arguments over Syria. Instead of pursuing a revisionist agenda, the Turkish foreign policy has thus been slowly retreating to its previous “default settings.” Erdogan rapidly altered the foreign policy by ending the conflict with Russia that emerged from the civil war in Syria and Russia’s reckless jet operation at the Turkish border. The government also reached an agreement with Israel over the conflict that lasted seven years. The same government that previously promoted stronger relations with the Middle East is now building a concrete wall at the Syrian border and is distancing itself from the groups fighting against Assad.

Yet the revisionist policies of Erdogan could not solve the most important domestic issue: the rising Kurdish nationalism and the terror attacks conducted by a Kurdish separatist organization (PKK). Many thought that a revision of the official line on the Kurdish issue could have solved the problem.  Initially, a promising ceasefire was achieved. However, clashes between the PKK and the Turkish forces have rapidly intensified since 2015. The changing power balance in the region was the main cause of the clashes. Following the examples in Syria and Iraq, the PKK’s aim has been autonomy for Kurds in Turkey by provoking a civil war. In reply, Erdogan threw his full support behind security forces that fought against Kurdish separatists.

Erdogan also lost his former political allies. First, the Turkish liberals stopped supporting him after the Gezi Park protests in 2013. After that Erdogan had a dramatic falling out with Fethullah Gülen and his religious sect. The origins of Gülen and his sect are rooted in the centuries-old Sufi order. Historically, Sufi orders never claimed political power or confronted the state in Turkey. However, Gülen, who started recruiting his followers as early as the 1960s, turned the Sufi order he inherited into a social organization. He focused on promoting his followers in bureaucracy and opened schools to educate public servants loyal to his movement.  For years, he was one of Erdogan’s closest allies, helping him in his rise to power. In exchange, Gülen’s followers over the years quietly assumed positions within many Turkish institutions, particularly in courts and police.

Fethullah Gülen. Source: http://gulenmovement.ca/

The Gülenists have led the show trials against the secular generals and the press since 2008. The secular armed forces’ leadership found itself in jail, while more than 40 generals were removed from their posts. The government supported these show trials because they helped Erdogan limit the political power of the army. Both sides supported each other, while the political opposition warned about the rapid infiltration of government institutions by Gülenists. In 2013, Gülen and Erdogan split in what appears to be part of a power struggle.

In the years since then, Erdogan purged the courts and police of thousands of men and women presumed to be Gülen loyalists. In the meantime, the show trial cases were closed and the accused generals released from prison. Erdogan might have concluded that the old establishment with a state ethos was more reliable than the religious orders beyond his control. This conclusion also forced Erdogan to change his inner circle. He removed most of his team members that he worked with since the launch of his political movement and appointed individuals from the traditional establishment. Yet, while destroying the old system, Erdogan could not build a new one. He found himself in a cul-de-sac. The debris he created forced him to move closer to the old establishment.

The military also had good reasons for an agreement with Erdogan. He has massive support in the Anatolian heartland, particularly among religious conservatives. He has won every election since 2002, and retains the support of half the population. A military coup against him could have faced a Syria-like insurgency. Moreover, it could have intensified separatist tendencies among the Kurdish population. Most importantly, the insurgency could have easily turned into an ethnic civil war. Considering the current affairs in the Middle East, these fearful scenarios are plausible more than ever.

Erdogan remains popular among conservative Kurds and he serves as the glue that keeps the country together. The army sees Erdogan as an important figure to keep Turkey united. The army leadership demands the punishment of the Gülenists who organized the show trials two years ago. They want to purge the armed forces from the Gülenist infiltration. There is a strong alliance between Erdogan and the army on this issue. Various commentators mention that the general staff of the army had already planned a wave of prosecutions against Gülenist officers. If the latter had not attempted the coup on July 15th, they would have been removed in August when the internal appointments and promotions are ordinarily due in the Turkish Army. The leaders of the failed coup were in the purge list and this might explain the timing of the coup. If the Gülenists knew that multiple purges were coming in August, then that would have provided cause for quick and radical action. Turkey experienced many coups, but never before were institutions such as the Parliament and headquarters for the Special Forces of the Turkish Army targeted and bombed, among others.  But in this coup they were all bombed.

Soldiers who surrendered their weapons were often abused by crowds of protesters. Source: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr

As we know, rapid arrests in the judiciary, military, and police followed. We might assume some arrests in the Turkish intelligence service as well. The lists of people to be arrested were ready because a constant purge against the Gülenists in the judiciary and police has been going on for the last  year. The ready lists of names show this constant purge but they don’t prove that the coup was staged. Moreover, Erdogan does not need a staged coup to arrest Gülenist prosecutors and judges.  The Gülenist prosecutors and judges who accused, arrested and jailed the secularist generals a couple of years ago have been removed or arrested. The former accusers now sit in the chair of the accused. The roles have been switched and the secularists are very happy with the situation. The army wants revenge and Erdogan serves them this cold dish with pleasure.

Erdogan and his supporters won the day, quickly consolidating control over the country. He has suddenly become the champion of democracy by crushing the coup. An overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens stood against the military rule and more than two hundred died in the clashes. All political parties demonstrated a united front against the putsch. Erdogan could see this as an opportunity to heal a deeply divided society.

However, past experience suggests that he might instead respond with a vicious crackdown. In recent years, the mainstream newspapers and television stations have been forced to follow the government line. Prosecutors have opened some 2000 cases against people suspected of insulting the president since 2014. After the coup, such repression will probably intensify. He might use the failed coup as an opportunity to go after adversaries, limit press and other freedoms further and accumulate more power.

Ironically, the victory of democracy might help Erdogan’s quest for authoritarian control in Turkey. In recent months, he heavily campaigned for a new constitution based on the presidential system. He now has a case to claim that only this system can keep enemies at bay. A rapid push to change the constitution through a referendum is possible. Thus the failed coup could serve as a pretext for an authoritarian regime. Although Turkish democracy survived a military coup, it now entirely depends on Erdogan. These recent events could also alter Turkish foreign policy and move the country further away from the West. In the critical hours of July 15-16, Western support for Erdogan came through gritted teeth. This was too obvious for Erdogan to miss. Mr. Gülen is in the U.S. giving Mr. Erdogan an opportunity to accuse the West of turning a blind eye to the plot. Turkish authorities – including Erdogan personally – demanded the extradition of Gulen right after the coup. As a new crisis in relations with America over this case approaches, Turkey rushes to restore relations with Russia.

KRYTYKA needs your support: Subscribing to our journal, you support the best in quality intellectual discourse and in-depth social, cultural, and political analysis Ukraine has to offer.

Your subscription or donation will help us remain truly independent!