The attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15 has reawakened the nightmare of the era when the army regularly intervened in politics, with their stock claims that they were restoring order or “secularism” or – this time – democracy.
In Turkey the armed forces have taken over three times in recent history – in 1960, 1971, and 1980 – and they have exercised significant influence over civilian governments. However, the coups often paradoxically ended up with rightwing and authoritarian political parties taking power and asserting control over the military.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remembers well the way the military ended the government of the Welfare party, the Islamic predecessor to his AKP, in 1997. He has mostly been more careful to keep the army onside, particularly by allowing them a free hand to fight the Kurdish separatist PKK guerillas in southeast Turkey.
But once AKP rule was consolidated, and with the help of the network of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen in the judicial system, hundreds of military officers were taken into custody in 2008 following an alleged military coup plan. Many, however, were released in 2013 after it was revealed that much of the evidence in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases had been fabricated.
Ironically the government and Erdogan have blamed Gulen for the current plot, demanding that the US extradite the 75-year-old imam, who strongly denies any involvement and has condemned the coup.
According to reports, the coup was sparked by a government plan to oust officers linked with Gulen during the High Military Council scheduled to be held in the first week of August. However, it is still unclear whether the alleged Gulenist sympathizers were alone in their plot or whether they collaborated with secularist factions of the army who were dissatisfied with government rule.
Ilhan Cihaner, a deputy from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), was in the parliament when pro-coup Sikorsky helicopters attacked the building with bombs. Although there is still no concrete evidence that the coup was orchestrated by pro-Gulen circles, Cihaner told bne IntelliNews that it is not a secret that Gulenist people always tried to penetrate state institutions.
“The army was the only institution which remained intact following the government’s efforts to purge the state apparatus of Gulen sympathizers over the past few years. The reason was to ensure a continuity in the security policies and the military operations in the southeast against the PKK,” he says.
Erdogan now appears to be ready to finally clear out the remaining secularists and Gulen supporters from the army. On Saturday he said that those behind the plot would pay a heavy price, calling the coup a "gift from God, because this will be a reason to cleanse the Turkish army".
“Turkey won’t be frightened by this kind of uprising and Turkey cannot be governed from Pennsylvania,” he added.
The risk is that any purge of the army will leave it demoralised and unable to prosecute its campaign against the PKK and Islamic State, as well as more resentful and politicised, storing up trouble for the future.
“Turkey’s contemporary history showed that the full-fledged development of democracy and the rule of law are the main conditions for the army to stay loyal to the civilian authority,” says Behlul Ozkan, a political science professor from Istanbul’s Marmara University.
According to Ozkan, if Turkish democracy in Turkey is not rapidly restored based on universal values and principles, and if this crisis is used for establishing Erdogan’s one-man rule in the country, Turkey should be prepared for worse days ahead.
“In the light of this bloody coup attempt, the government should think over its past mistakes in a comprehensive way. A country where more than hundreds of people are dead, police and army officers were pitted against each other, resembles a pre-war country and the ruling government should take lessons from that,” he said.
Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, says that, "following the purge and trial of military officers involved in the failed coup attempt, the Turkish army will be under government control to a greater extent than before, and [large scale purges] could damage its effectiveness".
“The army's morale and effectiveness, already low following the Ergenekon and Balyoz [Sledgehammer] trials, will be further weakened,” Erdemir told bne IntelliNews. “The Turkish military's morale and effectiveness will continue to erode until it withdraws from politics and concentrates on its core competences and duties. This is a lesson that Turkey's top brass have failed to learn over the years,” he says.
Erdemir expects Erdogan to use this challenge to further consolidate power and strengthen his one-man rule. “Ironically, Erdogan's adversaries in the military have provided the Turkish president with a golden opportunity to crush all dissidents. Just as it was the case with the 1980 and 1997 coups, the Turkish military once again inadvertently contributed to the rise of Islamist politics in Turkey,” he says.
According to Erdemir, the failed coup attempt is an opportunity for Turkey's democratic forces to see once again that they will have to overcome the authoritarianism of both the AKP and the military to strengthen rights and freedoms in the country. “Those who see the military as a bastion of secularism need to realize the damage it has caused to the secular democratic regime in Turkey,” Erdemir adds.