The failed coup was Turkish democracy’s last stand.

I have observed with bemusement some of the commentary (including here at KP) that views the failed coup in Turkey as a “victory for democracy.”  As someone who has lived through several coups in Latin America and who has academically studied, professionally written, and worked in developing policy for the US government on issues of comparative civil-military relations (including how to address coups), and who has written at length on the differences between coups d’etat, putsches, revolts and revolutions in the Middle East and elsewhere (some of it here on KP), I find it hard to believe that otherwise sensible commentators (with a notable exception) would think that anything good can come of the coup’s failure. This was not a simple matter of Turkish good guys versus bad guys, and the sequels to the violence will not be pleasant but will be long-lasting.

In any event, this week the Herald editorial board wrote favourably of the outcome in Turkey. My colleague Kate Nicholls (a comparative politics scholar) and I were disappointed by it and penned a response. It looks like the Herald will not publish the critique, so here it is:

As students of comparative civil-military relations, we were surprised to read the Herald’s July 19 editorial “Coup’s failure hopeful sign for democracy.” Unlike the Herald’s editors we see no positives resulting from the aborted coup. Instead we foresee the death throes of a painstakingly crafted secular, albeit imperfect, democracy, that was the crowning achievement of Kemal Atuturk and which has been under siege since the election of former Istanbul mayor Recep Erdogan to the Prime Ministry in 2003 and Presidency in 2014.

The cornerstones of the Kemalist vision of Turkish democracy were an apolitical professional military, an independent secular judiciary, and a multiparty electoral system characterized by a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.  Granted, Ataturk’s nationalism, which bound the country together in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, often worked to stifle free speech and repress ethnic minorities, notably the Kurds. Turkish democracy has also always been “guarded”, meaning that the military has on occasion acted as unelected veto-player. Yet since the rise of Erdogan to power 16 years ago, things have gotten incrementally but steadily worse.

Since he assumed office, Erdogan has undermined the judiciary by appointing ideological cronies and firing or arresting independent minded jurists; sacked hundreds of senior military officers and replaced them with loyalists; introduced mandatory Islamic Studies into military curricula; censored, banned and/or arrested non-supplicant media outlets and reporters; rigged electoral rules favour of his own party; and instituted constitutional amendments designed to perpetrate his rule and re-impose Sharia precepts on public institutions (something not seen since the days of the Ottomans). He has enriched himself and his friends by using public construction projects as sources of political patronage and illicit gain. All in all, he has destroyed the promise of a moderate democratic Islamism that brought him to power in the first place. Using populist methods to reaffirm his electoral popularity with the rural and urban poor, Erdogan has been steadily eroding Turkish democracy from within.

Erdogan has also proven himself to be diplomatically incompetent. From a position of stability as the regional power in the Levant, under his guidance Turkey now finds itself at war with adversaries on two borders, estranged from the US, Russia, Egypt and Israel as well as the Gulf Arab states, at odds with Europe over a host of political and economic issues, and confronted by a rising tide of domestic terrorism. His tenure has been ruinous for Turkish aspirations for European Union membership and Turkey’s increasingly unfavorable international reputation was cemented by its loss to New Zealand and Spain in the 2014 elections for a UN Security Council temporary seat for the 2015-17 term.

Erdogan has blamed the coup attempt on the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose power base is to be found amongst the more educated and liberal sectors of Turkish society and whose brand of Islam appears more compatible with the older secular nationalist vision. Whether Gulen was really behind the coup attempt remains to be seen, but there are reasons to suspect the President’s version of the coup’s origins, not least that the plot was very poorly planned and doomed to failure from the outset. For example, the plotters did not grab Erdogan or take over media outlets before announcing the takeover; did not move to censor social media in order to deny Erdogan and his loyalists an alternative communications platform; did not have more than a brigade’s worth of infantry troops (mostly conscripts) trying to control the entire country; and did not have enough armour or aviation on their side to impose emergency rule. As with many failed coups it was led by junior rather than senior officers, although that is because the senior ranks are full of Erdogan loyalists. One thing about modern day coups is that those leading them have a wealth of history to learn from, learning that does not seem to be much in evidence here in spite of Turkey’s history with previous coups and the examples provided by a host of countries elsewhere.

When it comes to the future of Turkish democracy, whether the coup was instigated from Pennsylvania or just a bit closer to the President’s own office is in many ways irrelevant. Erdogan is already using the events of the past week to further purge the military of secularist factions with the arrest of at least 6000 military personnel (including 130 officers), and has broadened the retaliatory sweep by suspending 8000 police officers, 15,000 public educators and 3000 members of the judiciary (all of whom are suspected of being opposed to his Islamicisation project for the Turkish state). He has moved to reintroduce the death penalty—a move which both appeals to baser populist tendencies and will be yet another setback in Turkey’s fifty-year long negotiation over accession to the European Union. None of this is supportive of democracy.

One of the major consequences of all this will be the reconfiguration of the Turkish military as a praetorian guard rather than professional organization. Based on Roman Imperial Guards, praetorian militaries are those that are heavily politicized, intervene in national politics, engage in domestic repression and serve the government of the day rather than the commonweal. Professional militaries, in contrast, are apolitical and non-partisan, focused on external defense and serve the nation as a whole regardless of who is in government.

What prompts a military to move from professional to a praetorian posture is a combination of push (internal) and pull (external) factors. The former include horizontal (between armed services) and vertical (between ranks) cleavages as well as resistance to government interference in military affairs. The latter include government corruption, stalemate, mishandling of security matters or inability to manage threats to national security, civil society pleading for intervention and loss of business confidence.

All of these factors were at play in Turkey’s latest coup. Nearly 300 people died in inter-service clashes. Erdogan loyalists swarmed under-manned and lightly armed soldiers in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Seeing that, civilian coup supporters stayed at home. Cynics will note that, in spite of its apparent near-success and the intense violence directed at loyalist-controlled security agencies and parliament, the nature of the undertaking suggested not so much a well-planned and militarily precise operation in defense of democracy as it did an opportunistic manipulation of discontent within military ranks in order to justify a purge of the discontented.

Whether the coup was done as a last ditch defense of the Kemalist democratic legacy or not, the outcome is now clear: Turkey has veered hard towards outright dictatorship with Erdogan as the primary beneficiary. The President’s announcement that he will now “clean all state institutions of the virus” that led to the coup is an ominous sign of things to come.

PS: The Herald was kind enough to publish a short version of the original essay on July 21, 2016.

21 thoughts on “The failed coup was Turkish democracy’s last stand.

  1. “opportunistic manipulation of discontent within military ranks in order to justify a purge of the discontented.”
    It sounds as though Paul and Kate are arguing that the coup was staged or deliberately provoked by Erdogan’s camp in order to provide a pretext for crushing his opposition.
    Is that in fact what is being alleged here?

  2. Or is it the case that the “coup was done as a last ditch defense of the Kemalist democratic legacy”?. Reminiscent of that old line from the Vietnam war “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”.

  3. Geoff:

    The answer to your questions could well be “yes” to both. The truth will out in time.

  4. There is no “could be” about it. Either Paul and Kate were arguing that the coup was deliberately provoked by Erdogan supporters or they were not.
    I will take it that they were in fact arguing that the coup was engineered by the Erdogan camp. In which case where is the evidence for such an allegation?
    We have responsibilities in such situations to stick to the facts and not make allegations which we cannot immediately substantiate. It is insufficient to say that the truth will come out in time. The allegation has been made now, and it should be substantiated now.

  5. Geoff:

    Could you just go and read some more? You misrepresent what we say because we cannot give a categoric or definitive answer to what continues to be a fluid situation, but must acknowledge the fact that different motivations may be at play.

    There are copious amounts of expert commentary from inside as well as outside Turkey that suggest that this was not just some straight military authoritarian imposition. So we have tempered our language to account for these as well as the official account.

    I feel no need, nor have the time to provide you with a documentary list of every source that we have used to formulate our opinion. After all, this is a blog, not an academic journal. Suffice it to say that we offer our opinion confident that the simplistic defense of Erdogan and his government that you offer is naive and wrong, much as is the Herald editorial board’s view of the matter.

  6. If the title of this article was “The failed coup was Turkish secularism’s last stand” it would be more convincing – except for the fact that Turkish secularism still has plenty of life left in it.
    Among the complaints are that the Turkish government introduced “mandatory Islamic Studies into military curricula”, and attempted to “re-impose Sharia precepts on public institutions” and was not concerned to retain a “secular judiciary”. None of these things are inconsistent with democracy, which normally delivers liberal secular government, but is in principle capable of delivering religious government, socialist government or any kind of government which the electorate chooses to install.
    The democratic assumption is that when governments behave badly (“appointing ideological cronies and firing or arresting independent minded jurists; sacked hundreds of senior military officers and replaced them with loyalists; censored, banned and/or arrested non-supplicant media outlets and reporters; rigged electoral rules favour of his own party; and instituted constitutional amendments designed to perpetrate his rule .. enriched himself and his friends by using public construction projects as sources of political patronage and illicit gain etc” then the electorate can respond by voting that government out of power. The rules of democracy do not allow for military coups. Therefore the coup was not about defending Turkish democracy. It may have been about defending secularism, which is regarded as more important than democracy by many in Turkey and by quite a few commentators in this country as well. But if that is the case, let us have a frank discussion about the merits of secularism, and the price which we should be willing to pay for it. Let us not equate democracy with either secularism or good government or even civil rights, because they are by no means synonymous.

  7. Geoff:

    Good point on the distinction between democracy and secularism, although I believe that Erdogan is both a political as well as religious authoritarian, which is the joint source of opposition to him.

  8. By the sounds of it, Erdogan has gone full-monty Putin, if he hasn’t already surpassed the neo-Tsar. With the exception of the shirtless appearances – Erdogan probably doesn’t have Putin’s physique.

  9. Good read and comments…..nobody giving any thoughts to this on this side of world…..

  10. Eric:

    You guys have that Cleveland circus show to watch, so no wonder the Turkish imbroglio has faded from the headlines.

  11. I appreciated your summary piece in the Herald, and unlike Geoff I see no problem with the longer appraisal above.

    We all make assertions about the nature of reality based on subjective interpretation of what happens. It’s human nature to do so.

    When I saw the television replay of the chopper shooting at the president’s vehicle I was puzzled at how the trajectory & impact of each shot (clearly visible) went almost precisely to the side, one side & the other, same, almost as if the intention was to get as close as possible without actually hitting the vehicle. It just didn’t look like wild shots from a cowboy unable to aim straight. It looked like a simulation of an attack. I remember thinking “Hey, a fake assassination attempt, not bad – looks almost real!!”

    Since then reporters have mentioned the incompetence of the coup tactics. Shambolic effect maybe designed, not due to performance errors? Clueless observers incapable of pattern detection will call this a conspiracy theory of course.

    Anyone who’s been observing geopolitics the past half century, and a reader of history, will be well-aware that black ops have long been normal. False-flag power-plays are part of political culture. Prolonging naivety around this is tedious. I’d rather my fellow Aotearoans develop a more sophisticated approach to public life…

  12. Good analysis Pablo. Geoff highlights the dilemma but democracy is not just a majority at the popular vote. It is also about the institutions

  13. “Democracy is a form of government in which power resides in the people and is exercised by them either directly or by means of elected representatives; a form of society which favours equal rights .. and tolerance of minority views” (OED).
    The first part is definitive but leaves open a wide range of institutional forms. The second part is aspirational and is neither unique to, nor an essential element of, democratic rule. After all, Socrates was put to death by Greek democracy.
    It is best to treat democracy, equality and tolerance as separate issues, recognising that it is quite possible to have any one without the other two, though all three are essential conditions for a harmonious and stable society.

  14. Dennis, there no need to apologise for advancing a “conspiracy theory” in this context. There can be no coup d’etat without a conspiracy. The only question is “Who were the authors of the conspiracy?”

  15. Quite right, Geoff (not that I was actually apologising). And of course one could point out that conspiracy theorising is idle speculation – since conspiracies are designed to be secret enterprises, and their nature is rarely revealed.

    Therefore most successful conspiracies remain hidden forever, with no evidence that they have occurred ever emerging into public awareness.

    But of course I can’t know that for a fact, so to make the logical assertion is presumptuous, eh?

    Folks speculate on the basis of who has most to gain from events produced by covert organising. Any inference will be seen as obvious by a large body of public opinion, and as ridiculous by an equally influential sector who don’t like the inference. A large third sector of public opinion will roll their eyes or find it all entertaining..

  16. Successful covert actions, by definition never see the light of day. However few covert actions are entirely successful, and most leave a trail of anomalous happenings or unexplained events which can be the key to unlocking the “conspiracy”. The problem for the state (or elements within the state system acting without its explicit authority) is how many people to involve in the covert action. The fewer involved, the less the chance that one among their number may “blow the whistle”, “leak” information or inadvertently disclose plans or actions. However, most covert actions cross the path of normal government activities. An obvious case is the police officer who unwittingly stumbles across, disrupts or uncovers an intelligence operation, but the same kind of risk applies to a vast range of ordinary bureaucratic activity. So when planning a covert action you might want to involve the police service or even the judiciary at some level but you cannot necessarily stop there. You might need the cooperation of the press, or the wider media, phone companies and postal services and at this point the whole project becomes fraught with risk. That is the dilemma of numbers for the covert operative.
    Coup plots are a special category of covert action. If never put into effect, they may indeed “remain hidden forever” but if successfully put into effect the broad nature of the conspiracy becomes self-evident, and in the case of a failed coup, the intelligence service of the target regime will normally be able to unravel the coup plans in short order. As in all investigations, inference is only a first, tentative step. Judgement depends on evidence.
    We have no history of military coups in New Zealand, and we can almost rule out the possibility so long as the balance of power between the military and civil arms of government remain as it is. We do have on-going covert state actions, most of which are successful and therefore “remain hidden forever”. However the state will not always strike the perfect balance between the numbers privy to a covert action and the numbers kept in ignorance. It is therefore in constant jeopardy of exposure.

  17. Yes, seems a reasonable account of what usually happens from our perspective within a mass communications society, with some allowance of public testimony. It certainly would not apply accurately to other states or societies at other times in history.

    Consider the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a suitable test case for our era. To what extent did the conspiracy unravel due to leaks, whistleblowers, or inadvertent disclosure? For 40 years, no extent whatsoever, according to the historical record.

    Old age eventually provoked McNamara’s conscience into disclosing the truth. Suddenly the widely-known fact that the communists attacked the US was revealed to be bullshit and got replaced by the fact that the US initiated hostilities. The organised lying of the US military & government was revealed by the belated NSA report. A successful conspiracy, unknown to all except the conspirators – no whistleblower ever dared to blow…

  18. The Gulf of Tonkin deception was only successfully maintained within the United States and its closest military allies. The rest of the world knew right from the start that the incident had been fabricated by the US administration. So while states like the US and NZ may very effectively manipulate the flow of information within their own jurisdiction, they are powerless to exercise the same degree of control over foreign media.

  19. Pablo / Not comment on this article. Only way of writing to you. This site Kiwipolitico does not print my comments. The offender I think is EA the Marxist socialist. This is what you progressives do Pablo. Censor comments. Like the Standard.. Sooner or later you become laughable this way. A site which censors different opinion is rat shit, pure.

  20. Paul:

    No censorship going on. It looks like comments from you and others like Dennis Frank are getting flagged by the spam filter. I do not go through the spam filter before deleting the hundreds of spam messages we get each day, so it is likely that your previous comments went there and then were deleted by accident. If you and others can alert me, EA or Lew as soon as you notice that your comments do to appear (they should be published immediately), the we can go into the filter and retrieve them. Knowing the date and time that you sent the missing comment allows us to better trawl through the filter rather than sift through hundreds of spam messages.

    I am not sure how to loosen the spam filter settings and am loathe to do so, but rest assured that you are not being singled out for censorship. If anything it may have to do with your email address because the filter seems to focus on them rather than the content of messages.

  21. Pual:

    I am unaware of me filtering any comments, in fact I dont think I ever had but like Pablo if you let us kn ow we can look into it.

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