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.” Â 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 Heraldâ€™s July 19 editorial â€œCoupâ€™s failure hopeful sign for democracy.â€ Unlike the Heraldâ€™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. Â Granted, Ataturkâ€™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 â€œguardedâ€, 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 Turkeyâ€™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 Presidentâ€™s version of the coupâ€™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 brigadeâ€™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 Turkeyâ€™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 Presidentâ€™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 educatorsÂ 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 penaltyâ€”a move which both appeals to baser populist tendencies and will be yet another setback in Turkeyâ€™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 Turkeyâ€™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 Presidentâ€™s announcement that he will now â€œclean all state institutions of the virusâ€ 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.