Turkey’s Slow Coup


Originally published on Medium, April 30, 2017.

July 15, 2016. Tanks and soldiers enter key Turkish cities. News broadcasters are stormed, the parliament building is bombarded, civilians are killed in the streets. Elements of the Turkish military have attempted to seize control of the country from the democratically elected government. The coup attempt occurs as night falls and while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is visiting the coastal city of Marmaris — indicative of his geographic separation from the apparatus of power — the president’s initial public response is broadcast via iPhone’s FaceTime.

By morning Erdoğan had returned to Istanbul, reporting that the coup attempt had collapsed and a “heavy price” would be paid.

Action follows words and within the next twenty four hours 2,800 members of the military and 2,700 judges are detained. The following weeks (and continuing as I write this) see Erdoğan’s response widen to embroil more of Turkey’s institutions. As of today, 10,000 members of the military (including 143 generals, officers and admirals — one third of all military leaders) have been purged. 1,600 university Deans have been asked to resign and a dozen Universities ordered close. More than 20,000 teachers and scores of public servants have been fired. The press doesn’t escape the crosshairs, 45 newspapers, 16 TV channels, 23 radio stations, three news agencies and 15 magazines are seized, hundreds of journalists lose their jobs and press credentials, and 89 warrants for the arrest of journalists are issued.

A State of emergency is declared, giving Erdoğan further power. In total over 80,000 people are detailed, suspended, or placed under investigation.

The immediacy and extent of the response has raised questions and theories. The more conspiratorial among them suggest that Erdoğan himself instigated the coup. More reasonable voices argue that the chaos is being used to execute a planned purge of any opposition, evinced by the rapid, sweeping arrests and given further credence by the admission that Turkish intelligence had no prior knowledge of the coup. It has been suggested the coup itself was a last ditch attempt by members of the military to stave off an incoming purge, the one that we are witnessing now.

When citizens took to the street in defiance of the military, they did so on the pretence of protecting Turkey’s increasingly fragile democratic system. But their victory may be a Pyrrhic one, and spell the defeat of democracy in Turkey.

The Republic of Turkey is a young country with a turbulent past. It took the collapse of an empire and a four year war of liberation for the formation of the modern state that we see today.

For 600 years the Ottoman Empire stood as the crossroad between East and West. After a long decline (signalled by persistent defeat by European armies, catalyzed by centuries of stagnation in social and military doctrine, and technology), the Ottoman defeat in World War I heralded the end of the empire. It’s apparent fate, to succumb to occupation and a humiliating partition by European powers. The imperial government of the Sultan (also the Islamic Caliph) was allowed to persist only as a rump state dominated by Europe.

Invigorated by such harsh terms, a nationalist movement took shape, an opposition government was formed, and a war of liberation — against both the occupiers, and the recognised government — was fought and won. At the centre of the movement, a military commander come national hero renowned for his role in the rout of the Allied invasion of Gallipoli (an inspiring victory against European adversaries, contrasting centuries of defeat). This hero, Mustafa Kemal would become the first president of the Republic of Turkey, and would come to be known as Atatürk — Father of Turks.

With the country now under the control of his parliament, President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk would undertake a series of remarkable reforms in order to modernise Turkey.

Atatürk abolished the role of Sultan and the office of Caliphate. A people previously ruled by the custodian of the world’s Muslim population were now democratic participants in a country whose leader was mercilessly separating religion from government (and government from religion). Islamic civil and penal codes were abolished and European ones adopted. Women were given universal suffrage (in 1935 the parliament included eighteen women, in a time where neighbouring Syria and Iraq — former areas of the Ottoman empire — now under dominion of England and France, were yet to allow women to vote). A new Latin based alphabet was introduced. The curriculum was stripped of it’s religious focus, and education was made free.

By the time of his death in 1939 Atatürk had widely succeeded in reinvented Turkey in the image of a secular European nation.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of Turks

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of Turks

“I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow-men.” — Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Today Turkey is undergoing an entirely different transformation.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the once soccer player and Islamist mayor of Istanbul, charged with ‘inciting hatred based on religious differences’ and jailed for four months in 1999, emerged onto the national stage in 2001 with the formation of the Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party). In 2003’s elections the party won a landslide victory. The AKP accomplished the first clear majority in parliament in 15 years; the Islamist politician Erdoğan became the country’s prime minister.

Turkey — bridging Europe and Asia — had long sought membership into the European Union, and in the early years of the new century the EU saw fit to begin negotiating the process.

The timing coincided with the commencement of Erdoğan’s tenure and seemed to invigorate the country; nearly 70% of the population were in favor of joining the EU. With a ferocity not seen since Atatürk, Erdoğan implemented sweeping reforms bringing the country closer in alignment with the liberal democracies of the EU, and their strict conditions for membership.

But the honeymoon wasn’t to last, negotiations with the EU would eventually stall.

In the 2007 election the AKP party won an even stronger majority. Absent of political opponents and without the guiding light of EU membership, Erdoğan had become increasingly authoritarian, Islamist, and sensitive to criticism. Opposition parties were dissolved, state media was brought under tighter control, the free press was intimidated in to line. Youtube was banned, and even Winnie the Pooh was removed from television(Piglet is a pig you see, and Islam views pigs as unclean. To censor on religious grounds is antithetical to the values of an ostensibly secular country).

The AKP would again be successful in the 2011 election, with their strongest result yet, but a three term limit codified by the Turkish constitution would mean this victory would be Erdoğan’s last as prime minister. But Erdoğan wasn’t done and his most audacious acts were to come. Erdoğan would rise from prime minister to president, consolidate his power, and transform the constitution to make it possible.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s most powerful politician since Atatürk.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s most powerful politician since Atatürk.

The president has always been recognised as the official head of state of the Republic of Turkey. The role however was heavily ceremonial. Voted on by the parliament (rather than the population) and constitutionally required to sever relations with all political parties, the president has been a unifying figure by design, seen as a guardian of Turkey’s secularism. Under Erdoğan’s AKP this would change. Two constitutional referendums (in 2007 and 2010) laid the groundwork that would allow Erdoğan to elevate himself to presidency — circumventing the prime minister’s term limit — and take with him as much power as possible.

In 2007 the constitution was changed to have the president elected by the public. The amendment was initially passed by the AKP dominated parliament (AKP holding 66% of the seats) but vetoed by the sitting president who prophesized that the AKP would “find itself in possession of all the major State posts (head of state, prime minister and parliament president)”, and that this would constitute a “danger” to secular Turkey. The constitutional amendment was forced to referendum, and passed, but not without a million protesters taking to the streets of Istanbul in support of secularism and to oppose the increasing Islamisation of the country. Among the amendments, the potential term of the president was lengthened to 10 years (in the form of two 5 year terms, increased from a single 7 year term).

While the changes in 2007 paved the way for Erdoğan’s presidency, the changes in 2010 aimed to increase the power of the presidency, by means of politicising the judiciary and ultimately bringing it under Erdoğan and the AKP’s control. The Constitutional Court, at times a thorn in Erdoğan’s side (in 2008 the court voted on whether to ban the AKP, the decision narrowly allowed the party to continue), would have it’s members raised from 11 to 17, with the president controlling 14 appointments and the parliament three. Another amendment would make it more difficult to ban political parties. Less contentious amendments were included, and the referendum was presented to the public as a modernisation of Turkey’s constitution to bring it closer to that of Europe. The head of the main opposition leveled that Erdoğan had “coated a poisonous pill with chocolate” and that the amendments would “put all the branches of government into one man’s hand”. The referendum passed.

Years later the president of the Constitutional Court would describe the court as having become an “instrument of revenge”.

On July 1st, 2014, more than 10 years after he rose to power as prime minister, Erdoğan’s candidacy for president was announced. He would win the popular vote during a controversial electionmarred by media bias, to become the first president to take advantage of the new powers and method of ascension he had introduced. Long time friend, foreign minister and timid intellectual Ahmet Davutoğlu would be appointed as the new prime minister, ensuring the AKP would continue to be subservient to Erdoğan (in violation of his constitutional duty to cut ties with the party).

Emboldened and no longer tethered to the parliament, Erdoğan became more abrasive and openly authoritarian. An early act as president was to acquire a comfortable new residence worthy of his ambition. Announced audaciously, a new palace intended as the residence of the prime minister (and constructed during Erdoğan’s tenure as prime minister) would instead now house the president. Constructed without permission on protected land put aside by Atatürk — the 1,150 room palace, costing upwards of half a billion US dollars, and 30 times bigger than the White House — was deemed illegal. Erdoğan openly defied the court, challenging them to “tear it down if they can. They ordered suspension, yet they can’t stop this building. I’ll be opening it; I’ll be moving in and using it”.

The Cumhurbaşkanlığı Külliyesi, President Erdoğan’s illegal residence.

The Cumhurbaşkanlığı Külliyesi, President Erdoğan’s illegal residence.

Erdoğan has employed this inflammatory tone — in combination with his legislative and judicial powers — to dismantle other institutions, chiefly, the free press. Laws have been tightened; terrorism has been redefined to include “supporters of terrorists”. Unashamedly Erdoğan tells a crowd that “their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact they are actually terrorists”. Speaking at a rally Erdoğan singled out prominent female journalist and Economist correspondent Amberin Zaman, calling her a “shameless militant woman” who should “know [her] place”. What predictably followed was a wave of violent threats leveled at her via twitter. Physical violence is also tolerated, if not encouraged. Mobs attack press offices with impunity — during one such attack an AKP parliament member incited the mob to violence against the editor-in-chief and top columnist of one of the country’s leading newspapers, telling the crowd the two had “never had a beating”. AKP followers complied, waiting at the CNN Turk building, following the columnist home, and putting him in hospitalThree journalists were killed in Turkey in 2015. Private citizens do not escape the censorship either, since his taking office, 1,800 legal cases have been opened for ‘insulting the president’. Examples include Orwellian cases like that of a husband reporting his wife for comments she made in the privacy of their home and for t̶u̶r̶n̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶o̶f̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶t̶e̶l̶e̶s̶c̶r̶e̶e̶n changing the channel during Erdoğan speeches, or the 12 and 13 year old boys arrested for tearing down posters of Erdoğan. ‘Insulting’ the president can lead to four years in jail. ‘Making terrorist propaganda’ as journalists are routinely charged, can attract seven and a half years.

Erdoğan’s oppressive response to the failed coup isn’t decisive, but simply an acceleration of a trend of behaviour extending back a decade.

Turkey has seen it’s share of coups; the Republic was born from the dethroning of the Sultan. A year before his death Atatürk professed that the military “will help and assist especially in our economic, cultural and social struggles”. The military internalised the message, coming to see itself as the guarantor of a secular Turkey and protector of Atatürk’s reforms and ideas. Four times (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) the military has dissolved governments that have been deemed to stray too far from the secularism articulated by Atatürk. On the most recent occasion (1997) the very threat of violence was enough. If the 2016 coup attempt is noteworthy for any reason, it is that it failed. The failure of the coup is a sign of the weakness of the military and other Turkish institutions, and how absolute Erdoğan’s control has become.

Of course there is no room for a military coup in a liberal democracy, but neither is there room for an authoritarian leader. This coup attempt is part of a long history, and part of multiple dialectics, between Islamism and secularism, between democracy and authoritarianism, between military and civil society, between the ideas and legacies of Atatürk and Erdoğan. When people took to the streets in defiance of the military they did so in support of democracy, in support of the belief that a government must be changed with a vote and not a gun. But the question needs to be asked, when a country and its institutions are so tightly controlled and opposition oppressed so excessively, what path for change remains?