Before the astonishing attempted coup in Turkey reached its death throes, Facebook was already awash with claims that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had written the screenplay himself. “It’s 100% an Erdogan creation!” exclaimed one user.
Erdogan and his ministers have a rival theory that it was all the work of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his supporters, who broke with Erdogan three years ago after a long period of cooperation.
Conspiracy theories have great currency in Turkey, so both options will have many followers. But whatever the actual motivation of the coup plotters – they said in a televised statement that they wanted to improve human rights and liberal democracy – their failed attempt to take power might as well have been done at the president’s behest, for it has strengthened the internationally-disliked autocrat’s hand like nothing else.
“This uprising is a gift from God to us,” Erdogan said. Of course he would. Overnight, world leaders and foreign ministers who had been his fiercest critics were broadcasting their support for him and Turkey’s government, which went within a few tense hours from being the puppet organ of a volatile man to the representation of democracy. The opposition party leaders who had for years publicly reviled Erdogan, as well as alienated former grandees of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), all lined up to defend the president and the government.
Erdogan saw with his own eyes that thousands of civilians – who in the past had been happy to support the coup-hungry military – flooded the streets at his behest, facing down tanks and apparently willing to die for him.
Landing at Istanbul airport in the early hours to a greeting by a crowd of supporters, Erdogan had the opportunity to pose as the conquering hero – the only Turkish leader to overcome a coup attempt. Former leader President Suleyman Demirel would famously grab his hat and leave the presidential palace when the military requested it.
The one good development highlighted by the unexpected coup attempt was the fact that the majority of Turks – even anti-Erdogan secularists – were finally persuaded that military takeovers were unacceptable and should be resisted.
But the underlying problems that brought us here – Erdogan’s volte-face from liberalising democrat to an increasingly high-handed Islamist who sees himself as above the law – will only get worse from now.
The lessons that Erdogan should learn from the events in which young soldiers effectively committed suicide by taking part in an action that didn’t have enough overt support is that he has created a dangerously divided country and should now work towards healing the wounds and bringing people together.
He should retreat to his presidential palace, let the government rule, return to his role as peacemaker with the restive Kurds, stop behaving as if Turkey’s secular liberals are irrelevant nuisances to be ignored or imprisoned if they annoy him. He should also stop antagonizing the world’s leaders and champion the role of law. Of course, to think that he will do any of these things is a pipe dream.
Instead, one of his handpicked Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s first acts has been to implicitly threaten war on the US if it does not extradite Gulen. One would assume these are empty threats, but these days you never can tell. Around the same time, Turkey shut the Incirlik air base, which was being used in the fight against ISIS.
Meanwhile, Erdogan jubilantly says that the coup attempt means he can finally purge the military of alleged Gulenists – indeed, in the past week, the government launched investigations of more than 2,000 military personnel accused of links to Gulen. Reports had already indicated that a clearout of the military was due in August and there is speculation that this might have prompted the soldiers to rebel. Now nearly 3,000 soldiers are under arrest and Erdogan’s allies will feel they have a free hand to reshape an already diminished military in their own image.
Another fiefdom Erdogan had been trying to cultivate is the judiciary – plans had been going well, and the heads of the various judicial institutions have been hanging out with Erdogan on trips and publicly drinking tea with him. And when institutions such as the constitutional court made rulings he didn’t like, Erdogan was perfectly at ease announcing that he didn’t have to recognize them. But now he can go further – Turkish media reported that 2,745 judges were fired throughout the country straight after the coup attempt. There are also arrest warrants out for more than 100 members of the Supreme Court.
The police force had already been undergoing great change, with hundreds of officers moved, retired or fired over the past few years, and tellingly, it was the police that helped neutralize the coup plotters. Expect the force to be made even more loyal.
The biggest gain for Erdogan relates to his controversial plans to create a “super presidency”, brushing aside the parliamentary system that has hobbled towards a more democratic state over the past decades, and concentrating greater powers in his own hands as the country’s first directly elected president.
This is confirmed to bne Intellinews by Zeynep Jane Louise Kandur, a senior member of the Justice and Development Party (AK) in Istanbul, who suggested that efforts to change Turkey’s military-era constitution would be speeded up and probably taken to a referendum – a divisive tool that the populist Erdogan has previously resorted to when he wants to get his own way. Her comments are chilling for anybody worried about Erdogan’s recent Putinesque authoritarianism.
“In the past, the Erdogan administration was more liberal. But under recent conditions a strong, autocratic, but not dictatorial stance, is required to maintain stability,” she told bne’s Carmen Valache, adding that one could not fight terrorism and be liberal-minded at the same time. “This is not a time of law and order,” but for a “strong hand.”
There is already talk that Erdogan could call another general election to ensure his AKP party gets the right number of MPs to change the constitution without the need to cooperate with others.
In the short term, he certainly looks like he will get his way and consolidate his grip on the institutions of state. He already controls much of the media.
But it’s not over yet. While the many anti-Erdogan Turks were taken aback by the coup attempt, there was also a sense that he had it coming. After years of putting up with Erdogan’s social media bans and anti-protest stance, his many trials against dissenters and his habit of ignoring the wishes of those who don’t support him, even the most democratically minded have been tempted by draconian thoughts. For the first few minutes until the fear of military rule kicked in, a large number of Turks will have felt a secret thrill that the Erdogan era might finally be over.
These people are still there, and feeling increasingly hemmed in by a triumphant Erdogan. Whether or not Gulen had any role in pressing the button among the military discontents, it would be simplistic to reduce the unease in Turkey to a simple turf war between two power-hungry men. Turks are distressed at what their country has become.
Alongside those people who went out on the streets in response to Erdogan’s text message urging resistance, many others responded by effectively saying “no thanks, I don’t support coups but for years you have brushed my needs aside in favour of those Islamist oafs and your cronies”.
The anger is still simmering and could boil over at any time. Erdogan might have been saved, but the same cannot be said of Turkey.