Failed Coup Signals the End Turkish of Democracy
Paul Buchanan & Kate Nicholls
As students of comparative civil-military relations, we were surprised to read the Herald’s editorial, “Coup’s failure hopeful sign for democracy.” We see no positives resulting from the aborted coup. Instead we foresee the death throes of a painstakingly crafted secular, albeit imperfect, democracy, that has been under siege since the election of Recep Erdogan as Prime Minister in 2003 and President in 2014.
The cornerstones of Turkish democracy were an apolitical professional military, an independent secular judiciary, and a multiparty electoral system characterised by a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.
Granted, Kemal 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 in 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 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 unfavourable 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 trying to control the entire country; and did not have enough armour or aviation 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.
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), has suspended 8000 police officers and 3000 members of the judiciary, and moved to reintroduce the death penalty-a move which both appeals to baser populist tendencies and will be yet another setback in Turkey’s 50-year long negotiation over accession to the European Union.
In spite of its apparent near-success, the nature of the coup suggested not so much a well-planned and militarily precise operation in defence 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 a last ditch defence 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.
Paul G. Buchanan is Director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a New Zealand based political risk and strategic analysis consultancy. Kate Nicholls is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Public at the AUT.
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