Erdogan’s pyrrhic victory
By Dr. John C. Hulsman
The short term consequences of the weekend’s stunning failed coup attempt in Turkey seem clear enough. In typical Putin mini-me fashion, surviving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position is strengthened, with him calling the coup ‘a gift from God,’ allowing him to energetically purge the disloyal army of both Gulenist and Kemalist factions.
In his defiant speech from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Erdogan laid the blame for the coup squarely at the feet of ‘those in Pennsylvania,’ meaning exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former supporter of the President, now turned bitter enemy. A shadowy figure with followers permeating the military, courts, and police, for years Gulen proved to be a powerful ally of the Turkish President.
However, in 2013, these former political partners in staring down Turkey’s secular establishment dramatically parted ways. Mired in corruption scandals which tainted his image as a clean pair of hands, Erdogan blamed Gulenists for targeting his supporters, including his son Bilal. He responded to the charges by purging the judiciary and police of Gulenist supporters, shifting back toward a temporary alliance with the cowed secular army to see off the challenge.
With the failure of the plot, Erdogan can continue his housecleaning of Gulenists from the military itself. Erdogan and his minions have already arrested 2800 in the army, and fired 2700 judges who might not yet be under his thumb.
Going further, Erdogan–playing to the Turkish crowd and showing his disdain for the rule of law–demanded the US extradite Gulen immediately, proving itself a true ‘strategic ally’ of Turkey. Secretary of State John Kerry, so often gormless, bravely asked that some evidence of Gulen’s complicity be produced. US-Turkish relations are in for a stormy time.
As harmed as the Gulenist cause is by the failure of the revolt, the aborted coup signals nothing so much as the death knell of the formerly dominant secular ‘Deep State:’ the cadre of secular political, intelligence and military officials who have really run the country since Ataturk founded modern Turkey.
But though bloody–in that over 200 people died—the coup was put down with relative ease, over the course of a single evening. It signals the likely last hurrah of the army-dominated Deep State. Over time, Erdogan has been successful in dealing with the once over-mighty army, pensioning off secularists in the high command (and marginalising the remnant), all the while promoting more overtly Islamist officers.
It was this final mortal institutional threat to their shrinking power base that seems to have compelled the Kemalist faction within the army to act. Their failure signals their political doom: Erdogan has grimly noted that the failed coup amounts to ‘an opportunity’ to once and for all cleanse the armed forces of its formerly dominant Kemalist orientation.
But if in the short run Erdogan emerges from the ashes of the failed coup phoenix-like, with his power enhanced, and if his enemies in the Gulenist movement and the army lie in ruins, the longer term picture for Turkey exposed by the coup is far less clear.
The Turkish President’s form of majoritarian democracy–a system with few checks and balances beyond the ultimate power of the people to eject him from office—now looks brittle. By sweeping away competing power centres in the army, the judiciary, and the police force, Erdogan has superficially vanquished his foes, rather than co-opting them through the usual democratic norm of political compromise.
The problem with this method is that, while the ruling AKP Party tends to have slightly more than majority support across the country, it does leave a huge, embittered and massive minority of the country (well over forty percent) implacably opposed to Erdogan’s increasingly over-mighty behaviour.
The fact that he has no rivals in his own party means that he also has no obvious successor to carry on his mildly Islamist reforms in a heretofore secular Turkish society. In dominating everyone, Erdogan is a one-man band, in that he and he alone is all that is holding his immediate political ascendancy together. It is that political fragility that the failed coup has just exposed for all to see.
So while in the aftermath of the failed coup, the Turkish President bestrides the Bosporus like a political colossus, real cracks are showing in the grand edifice of his rule. Turkey is not the stable state it was taken for just a few days ago.
Published in City AM London, July 16, 2016