A coup d’etat was the only thing missing from the dark series of events that have rocked Turkey since last year, when the party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country’s strongman, lost its absolute majority in the legislative elections on 7 June 2015. His party, the AKP (Justice and Development), could only regain its majority once the elections were repeated in November, under a cloud of damaging violence.
It is now clear that even November’s victory was not enough to stabilise the country, which has been battered and bruised by its own war with the Kurds, the fallout from the Syrian civil war, an ambiguous relationship to radical Islam - including Daesh, spectacular global and regional isolation, ever tenser relations with its western allies, a sluggish economy and President Erdoğan’s ever more authoritarian, if not totalitarian, regime.
Let’s not forget the series of attacks Turkey has suffered: the first bomb went off in Suruç (34 killed, over 100 wounded), then at Ankara Station (109 killed, over 500 wounded), Sultanahmet (13 tourists killed, 14 wounded), Ankara Military district (29 killed, 61 wounded), Ankara Güvenpark (36 killed, 125 wounded), Istanbul Avenue Istiklal Istanbul (4 tourists killed, 36 wounded), Antep (3 killed, 23 wounded) Istanbul Vezneciler (12 killed, 36 wounded), Aéroport Atatürk (36 mostly tourists killed, 147 wounded) and now the military coup most likely spearheaded by Kemalist [secularist] and Gülenist [followers of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, once Erdoğan’s mentor, now his pet peeve] factions.
The coup’s execution is not entirely in keeping with the age-old methods of the Turkish army, as one of the many carried out since 1960, both successful and aborted. In fact, it more closely resembled certain African coups organised by factions within the army. First, because of its unprecedented violence. Turkey’s coups are not normally peaceful, but this one was unusual for its almost gratuitous violence – as demonstrated by its summary executions and tanks sweeping away all before them. 265 people of all political orientations were killed, with around 1,500 reported to be wounded.
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It was also (luckily) ham-fisted, failing to target key leaders, bombing the Parliament with fighter planes, leaving the pro-Erdoğan media alone to continue broadcasting and to call for popular resistance. But we must not delude ourselves. Neither political leaders’ call for resistance, nor the Presidency of Religious Affairs’ (close to Erdoğan) decision to mobilise imams against the coup played the decisive role. On closer inspection, the armed forces as a whole did not support the putschists, while the police and the intelligence services succeeded in thwarting the coup.
Turkey, unlike post-Franco Spain, has not “demilitarised” its political system in order to put the military at the service of the state. At the start of its rule, the AKP skilfully used the preconditions of EU membership to substantially limit the military’s political weight. One precondition meant “civilising” military authorities like the National Security Council. And it took over the military’s system of promotion through clientelism. But it never laid a hand on the army’s judicial and financial autonomy.
The military kept its own internal judicial system and regularly received a blank cheque at the start of each fiscal year that it never had to account for. This system allowed the regime to turn the army into its vassal, happy to keep its privileges in exchange for its loyalty. What’s more, over its 14 years in power, the AKP has succeeded in establishing a military-industrial complex where pro-AKP businessmen and military officials work hand in hand. Last but not least, the regime has largely ‘islamicised’ its non-commissioned officers and essentially purged the army of Alevism, a mystical branch of Islam. While Gülenists and Kemalists have hidden in the woodwork, they are now in the firing line.
Since the regime restored its control, it has begun purging putschists in the military and also in the judicial system. At present, over 60,000 civil servants have been either arrested, put under investigation or ousted from ministries dealing with justice, internal affairs, education, the environment, social affairs and defence. The regime has also promised to reintroduce the death penalty, and has left its militia to use ISIS-style tactics both against the putschists (in one extraordinary moment beating up a four-star general), but also against the slightest wiff of opposition. For several days, countless news websites have been blocked for allegedly being close to the Gülenists. The regime appears to have decided to eradicate Gülenism wherever it is found. Other opponents are likely to be next.
After the aborted military coup d’état, Turkey won’t be more democratic, contrary to what clumsily phrased declarations from within the country and abroad have suggested. It has been a long time since Turkey’s political balance swung between democracy and dictatorship. But now it is moving between two dictatorial ways of governing. The regime effectively feels it is sufficiently secure to constitutionally impose a strong presidential system in the style of Putin’s Russia, without any constraints or counterbalance.
In that respect, the putschist army officials, whatever their allegiance, their initial motivations or their ultimate intentions, have handed to Erdoğan the presidential regime he has dreamed of since 2010. For “the hero of democracy”, it is now merely a question of beginning the process of presidentialisation by a referendum (or early elections) that he is sure to win. By ostensibly declaring 15 July the Day of Democracy, Turkey’s leadership has crowned its new legitimacy by cementing its absolute power.
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