Coup à la turque? What went wrong with Turkey’s military putsch

CDA Institute Analyst Oksana Drozdova discusses what went wrong with the attempted coup in Turkey.

On 15 July 2016, a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) attempted to overthrow the current government by capturing Istanbul and Ankara. On one hand, the news took the world community by surprise. Turkey, after all, is a NATO member state, a poster country for economic development, and a candidate for membership in the European Union. On the other, the coup was not completely unexpected, keeping in mind Turkey’s history and its current political situation.

The Republic of Turkey, which in five years will celebrate its centennial, has experienced five coups — both failed and successful — in its history. The army, partially because of the Ottoman legacy, has always considered itself the guardian of the State and the Constitution. High-​handed leaders that were seen to be encroaching on republican values and the Kemalist legacy were swiftly removed. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as I stated earlier, with his current political maneuvers and unchecked lust for power, satisfied all the prerequisites for a coup, and the president’s absence from the capital gave a group within the TSK a clear signal to act.

However, the question remains: Why did only a faction of the TSK decide to participate in the attempted coup? And why did the classic twentieth-​century recipe for a military coup not work this time?

In the past several years, Erdoğan, the darling of the West, has been consolidating power on all fronts to change the constitution to turn Turkey into a presidential republic, and himself into a life-​long leader. In the context of the twentieth century Turkish republic, this alone would have been enough to provoke a coup. However, mindful of the TSK’s power, Erdoğan has also kept the military in check. In response to this, the TSK issued a public statement on 31 March 2016 stating that it was firmly opposed to any illegal action and that only absolute obedience and a firm chain of command would guide its actions. In other words, by issuing the statement and effectively removing themselves from the politics of Erdoğan’s constitutional overhaul, the military hoped to avoid the fate of so many Turkish politicians and prominent figures whose loyalty Erdoğan had come to doubt.

Nonetheless, in the process of Turkey sliding into authoritarianism and the tyranny of one-​man rule, goodwill alone was not enough. The faction of the TSK which, against all odds, decided to attempt a coup was either not convinced that a public pledge of allegiance would pacify the leader or received some piece of information that confirmed their worst fears. This is likely why the police special operation centre in Gölbaşi became the first target of the coup members. In either case, they decided to act quickly and in their haste had to forgo the recipe of a classic coup à la turque.

First of all, ‘usual’ coups in Turkey are planned years in advance and are carefully executed. This one appeared to be haphazard and hastily organized. Secondly, it included only certain parts of the TSK and took place only in several major cities with Istanbul and Ankara being the centre of action. But, even with the erratic preparations, the putschists followed several important steps. They acted when Erdoğan was not in Ankara. In a classic coup he would have been arrested, but the mere absence of the leader from the capital was enough to prompt a move. Moreover, the putschists arrested Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, seized telecommunications and forced a TRT news anchor to read a declaration from coup leaders who, in this public announcement named themselves the “Peace at Home Committee.”

However, what made this coup attempt stand out is the fact that Erdoğan addressed the nation on CNN Türk via a mobile telephone. He urged the people to take to the streets to resist the coup and defend democracy. Technology, which in this case played a crucial role in connecting the country’s leader with the people. Although the putschists commenced the coup at night, hoping that the nation would wake up the next day to a fait accompli, they could not control the flow of information through social media, whose impact was magnified when religious leaders joined the resistance and started calling on the people to take to the streets.

In an era when social media has changed the very idea of information flow, and when concealing covert action becomes almost impossible, the question begs: Is it still possible to stage a coup?

However, the putschists not only failed to control the power of social media, they also did not succeed in attracting popular support. Currently, Turkey’s political landscape lacks any sort of energetic opposition that could be dissatisfied with Erdoğan to the point where the coup slogans could have found resonance. Firstly, Erdoğan has recently turned the National Action Party (MHP), the official opposition party in the current parliament, into a ‘pocket’ opposition by securing the seat of its uncharismatic leader, Devlet Bahceli. Forever indebted to Erdoğan, or at least for the next two years until the new elections, Bahceli supports Erdoğan’s every move.

More moderate and liberal minded parts of Turkish society, like Mustafa Akyol, were not too keen on the idea of a coup d’état. In a very unstable political situation, both domestically and internationally, and with a civil war raging on Turkey’s border, the idea of an authoritarian leader that can hold the society together seems to be a much better prospect than the chaos that would inevitably follow a violent régime change.

The international response that followed the coup was very telling, moreover. President Obama stated his support for Erdoğan, denouncing the putschists’ actions. The US is very much interested in preserving peace and stability in the region and within NATO. Moreover, while the US might have been supportive of removing a ‘loose cannon’ like Erdoğan, just had been the case in Egypt, the American president had little choice but to endorse a democratically elected government. Finally, the fact that a NATO member is slowly sliding toward authoritarianism is not necessarily a problem for the West. Greece was not expelled from NATO after a coup brought a right-​wing junta to power in 1967, for instance.

When Erdoğan first emerged on Turkey’s political arena, he was regarded as a champion of the country’s rapprochement with Europe and hence as a saviour of Turkish democracy – a leader who could usher in a new era of moderate Islamic politic engagement. However, in time, Erdoğan has proven himself to be a difficult ally whose growing authoritarianism and complacency toward militant Islam threatens regional stability. Moreover, the West has misjudged Erdoğan’s true intentions.

Ever since his appearance in Turkey’s political arena in 2002, Erdoğan – a die-​hard Islamist – tried to convince the public both at home and abroad that he abandoned his radical religious views. His actions at first aligned with his words. Erdoğan started to pursue the most pro-​European, integrationist agenda that Turkey has even seen. However, his calculations where simple and stemmed from appealing to the national pride of the Turkish people. The more Erdoğan pressured the EU to accelerate the negotiations, the more Brussels pushed back. Pro-​European sentiment in Turkey declined dramatically as Turkish people felt increasingly rejected by the EU.

The failure of the July coup nevertheless highlights Erdoğan’s resilience and has underscored the extent to which the TSK is no longer an effective check on the president’s ambitions. His régime enjoys a reasonable measure of popular support, a fact that no doubt contributed to the West’s reflexive condemnation of the attempted coup. However, one thing is certain: This experience will make Erdoğan more powerful, rendering him a saviour of the nation and giving him a free hand to purge the state of pro-​coup elements. The erosion of human and political rights in Turkey will reach new heights.

Moreover, the rumors that coup might have been orchestrated by the Pennsylvania-​based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose extradition Erdoğan is now craving, will no doubt drive yet another wedge between Turkey and the West. It is therefore vital for both the US and the EU to maintain a close dialogue with Ankara and design an effective strategy that will prevent Turkey from doubting its ties with the West.

Oksana Drozdova is an Analyst with the CDAInstitute currently working towards a Master’s degree at UOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). Her research interests focus on International security, Eastern European studies and issues of statehood in political theory. (Image courtesy of Associated Press)

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