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Turkey's failed coup tightens stranglehold on democracy

Last Friday's coup attempt by a faction in the Turkish army called the ‘Peace at Home Council’ was as intense as it was disastrously short lived. By Saturday morning, the Justice and Development Party-led (AKP) government had regained control of its besieged cities, while television footage captured hundreds of soldiers being led away in handcuffs.

This historic coup attempt – only the fifth in the Republic's history – was poorly executed. The plotters were unable to detain the country's civilian leadership, or obtain decisive control of the streets. Moreover, no coup plotter came forward to articulate a clear message, reinforcing the view that this was an unplanned, chaotic and ultimately directionless attempt.

Much of this failing is because the army's top brass did not support the coup. The Chief of General Staff and his air force, navy and land commanders knew nothing about the proposed take over until Friday evening, and were quickly detained. Turkey's land forces, the army's largest and most active component in urban areas, participated in very small numbers.

This lack of support is unsurprising given that the government has systematically purged the military of senior officials who are seen as a threat to its rule. For example, between 2008 and 2015 the government presided over a series of trials during which over two hundred senior military officers, including generals involved in past coups, were prosecuted on charges of plotting to end its rule. Since then Erdogan has sought and secured rapprochement with a more apolitical military establishment, now focused on defending Turkey from growing external threats.

More broadly, there have been significant changes in Turkey’s civil-military relations over the last two decades aimed at circumscribing its former power. Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU has necessitated internal reforms to secure civilian government supremacy over the influence of the armed forces in budgetary allocations and control over the National Security Council. There has also been a growing ideological tussle between so-called traditionalists and reformists within the military over how active it should be in Turkish politics. In this context, the prospect of an interventionist majority within the army was always a slim prospect.

Any lingering doubts within the army about its anti-coup stance would have dissipated when thousands of Turkish citizens mobilised, alongside major political parties, to offer their outright condemnation. Popular mobilisation was partly an affirmation of parliamentary democratic principles, as well as an immediate rejection of the prospect of military rule. But it was also partly a response to Erdogan’s unabashedly hypocritical call on the masses to take to the streets. Such a response is a reflection of the President’s enduring popularity and that of his party’s platform, particularly among religious conservative, working class neighbourhoods in Turkey's big cities.

The government’s effective monopolisation of the narrative around the coup, aided by the plotters’ inability to shut down pro-AKP television and social media networks, was also a key factor in its failure. In his first speech after the coup's commencement, Erdogan immediately framed the threat as an external one. The President emphasised that these were rogue elements taking orders from Pennsylvania – a thinly veiled reference to Fetullah Gulen’s so-called parallel state and its campaign to destabilise Turkey. Importantly, he was careful not to delegitimise the army as an institution to avoid projecting any broader conflict between civilian and military authorities.

The fallout from this attempt will be exponentially damaging for Turkey's political and security situation. The army, which has historically been the only institution capable of keeping civilian politics in check, is at its nadir. Three thousand army personnel are in custody, including Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, commander of Incirlik Air Base, Gen. Adem Huduti, commander of the second army in the Southeast, and 230 other brigadier and major generals. Leaving aside the massive experience and operational knowledge lost through these arrests, key units across the country will quickly need to be reorganised in the shadow of ongoing conflicts. More importantly, the splits within the army made apparent by the coup attempt are likely to permeate throughout the institution and undermine public confidence in its offices.

The army's weakness plays into President Erdogan's hands. Emboldened by the coup's swift suppression, he has already begun a large scale 'cleanse' of the army and judiciary. Close to 6,000 people have been arrested on the pretext of being Gulenist sympathisers, not necessarily for their direct involvement in the coup attempt. This kind of mass purge furthers a growing trend in which Erdogan has eviscerated domestic opposition in order to consolidate power within his inner clique as he seeks Executive Presidency. In addition to the Gulenists and armed forces, the moderate Kurdish People's Democratic (HDP) party, liberals and young students, the independent press, and even powerful, dissenting AKP figures such as Ahmet Davugtoglu, have paid the price.

In the context of this creeping authoritarianism, the challenge for Erdogan's loyal support base will be to differentiate between and decouple its legitimate support for AKP's political platform from an unquestioning faith in the man himself. Doing so will be extraordinarily difficult without significant dissent against Erdogan's machinations from within the AKP. But until it happens, further crises remain just around the corner.

Nishadh Rego is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Merton Wilton (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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