Is Turkey Becoming a Banana Republic?
Svante E. Cornell
The failed military coup in Turkey provides a window into just how unstable and vulnerable Turkey has become. The coup is a unique but not isolated event, more than anything a symptom of the decay of Turkish state institutions under Erdogan. The sizable post-coup repression will make matters worse, in fact increasing rather than decreasing the risk of further violence, including a new coup. Turkey is now more a problem in its own right than an ally to help solve regional problems.
The failed coup in Turkey has been a long time in the making. The myriad of intrigues that led up to the coup defies easy explanation, but its roots lie squarely in the sometimes dramatic power struggles that have plagued Turkey since the mid-2000s.
Indeed, Turkish politics have been bewildering for their byzantine intrigues and rapidly shifting allegiances. Back in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power because it had built a winning coalition of pious Muslims, liberals, and ethnic Kurds. In particular, Erdogan had the backing of a rival Islamic movement led by the Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen. Because professional cadres with a background in the Gülen movement were plentiful in the judiciary, police, and media, this tactical alliance proved crucial to Erdogan’s efforts to beat back the unelected guardians of Turkey’s politics – the “Kemalists” in the military and high courts. Hundreds of officers were convicted on mainly spurious charges, (See Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantasy) while Erdogan pursued a peace process with the Kurdish PKK guerrilla. (See Karaveli, Turkey’s Kurdish Opening)
But once the common enemy is defeated, the in-fighting starts. (See March 5, 2012 Turkey Analyst) A growing power struggle between Gülen and Erdogan from 2010 onwards led to an irreparable rift. Erdogan desperately sought to change the constitution into a Putin-style, one-man rule presidential system. When he failed to get this through, he simply acted as if he had succeeded. Turkey is supposed to be ruled by a Prime Minister accountable to parliament, but Erdogan treats both as rubber-stamp institutions, ruling the country by decree from his massive presidential palace.
Erdogan has spent the past half-decade dismantling the governing structures of the Turkish republic. Since his aim was to achieve a one-man rule system – whether informally or preferably formally – all institutions, forces, and checks and balances that could oppose that goal were undermined. The Erdogan-Gülenist alliance dealt the military and judiciary establishment a hard blow in 2009-10. The military was demoralized, and courts were increasingly politicized. The Parliament was turned into a rubber stamp institution, as was the cabinet of ministers, supplanted from 2014 by Erdogan’s massive presidential staff operating from his newly constructed palace. The AKP itself was emasculated, the serious politicians within it replaced by loyalist yes-men that could be counted on to approve of Erdogan’s presidential system. (See August 13, 2014 Turkey Analyst)
But in practice, Erdogan had to contend with three major forces that could resist his ambitions. Prime Minister Davutoglu’s former chief advisor, Etyen Mahçupyan, this year told the Turkey Analyst that “when you come to power, you see that besides you, there are three major forces in the country: the PKK, the military and the Gülenists. If you antagonize all three at the same time, you will not survive. You must reach an entente with one of them. Thus, there is a period together with the Gülenists, and the solution process [with the PKK]. And then, as the fight with the Gülenists and the war against the PKK followed, there is a period when there is a forced entente with the military.” (April 5, 2016 Turkey Analyst)
Inadvertently, and precisely because Erdogan systematically weakened the democratic institutions of the state, his regime became increasingly vulnerable to challenges outside the constitutional framework from those three major forces: the PKK, the Gülen fraternity, and the military. The collapse of the peace process in 2014, fueled by Turkish policies in Syria, (See September 25, 2013 Turkey Analyst) led Erdogan to face a serious transnational threat from the PKK and its sister organization, the PYD in northern Syria – as shown by the armed resistance of urban Kurdish youths to the Turkish security forces. That, in turn, made Erdogan increasingly dependent on the military leadership, with which he forged an alliance. But more than anything, that alliance was a reaction to the mortal threat the Gülenist cadres posed to Erdogan’s power.
Indeed, even before July 15, Gülenist cadres had launched two serious challenges to Erdogan’s power. The first came in February 2012, when prosecutors sought to apprehend Hakan Fidan, Head of the National Intelligence Organization and Erdogan’s closest confidant – with the apparent aim of arresting Erdogan next. (See February 20, 2012 Turkey Analyst) Then, in December 2013, prosecutors and police arrested four of Erdogan’s ministers on corruption charges, with the aim to launch a second wave of arrests that was to include Erdogan’s closest family members. (See December 18, 2013, Turkey Analyst) When Erdogan narrowly thwarted this, ample evidence of Erdogan’s corruption was leaked onto the internet, dealing a serious blow to his domestic and international standing.
Turkey, then, is a country where governing institutions and rule of law have been systematically eroded for the better part of a decade – and where the President bases his power on informal control over the bureaucracy, media, and economy. Meanwhile, under the surface, warring factions and sects are fighting for power, not unlike the dogfight under a carpet to which Winston Churchill allegedly likened Russian politics. Turkish politics in the past five years can best be understood through the prism of a power struggle between two Islamic movements – Erdogan’s and Gülen’s – for control over the state. It is this environment that made the July 15 coup attempt possible.
Indeed, the most striking quality of the coup attempt is its faceless nature. Was it hatched by disgruntled Kemalists, a Gulenist clique in the army and air force, or some unholy combination of the two? Whatever the answer, it speaks to Turkey’s deeper problem: none of this could have happened if Erdogan had strengthened rather than weakened the rule of law and the governing institutions of the state. As it was, he was saved only by the steadfast commitment of the top military brass, opposition politicians and the people at large to democracy and the rule of law – indeed, by the very values and principles he has tried so steadily to emasculate.
The lesson of the failed coup is that Turkey’s stability, democracy and indeed Erdogan’s own future can only be safeguarded by a return to those values and principles. But true to form, Erdogan appears to have drawn different conclusions: having narrowly escaped another challenge to his position and to his life, he has made it clear that he will use this coup attempt as the excuse to once and for all eliminate all challenges to his vision of one-man rule. While he blames the Gülen fraternity for the coup, they will not be alone on the receiving end: the net that is being cast is much wider, and is likely to snag considerable elements of the secular establishment in Turkey. Already, the number of public servants dismissed or detained is in the tens of thousands, and will only grow.
The main question at this point is how broad the wave of repression will be, and to what extent Erdogan will take this opportunity to speed up the Islamization of Turkey that he has embarked upon in a more measured, long-term manner through the reforms in the education system (See September 2, 2015 Turkey Analyst) and the massive empowerment of the state directorate for religious affairs. (See October 9, 2015 Turkey Analyst.) That directorate was crucial in mobilizing Erdogan’s Islamist supporters by ordering mosques across Turkey to issue calls for prayer throughout the night and calling on the people to resist the coup. But now that the coup is over, these Islamist mobs have begun targeting neighborhoods dominated by secularists and the minority Alevis, sweeping through with Sunni Islamic chants, and intimidating and in some cases harassing people. Whether this will dissipate as the post-coup fervor dies down remains to be seen. What is clear is that Erdogan is convinced he managed to save his regime thanks to the Islamist mobilization of his followers. From experience, it should not surprise anyone if he now drops all inhibitions against the more overt, and forceful, Islamization of Turkish society and state.
Crucially, Erdogan is also now likely to try to assert direct control over the army, and to take a direct interest in a thorough purge to mold the military in his own image. Although the military has been seriously weakened by the coup attempt, anger or hatred toward Erdogan remains compact in the lower ranks of the military. In the past, the Turkish military has jealously guarded its institutional autonomy, going as far as to consider challenges to that autonomy sufficient ground for a military intervention. It remains to be seen if the high command, which has no love lost for Erdogan either, will accept to be domesticated.
Turkey’s failed coup was an indication of the continued dismantling of Turkey’s state institutions. In coming weeks, Erdogan is set to continue that process, taking this historic opportunity to finally drive home his super-presidential system, and his rule will likely reach new levels of repression. Because of a shocked people’s yearning for stability, he may succeed this time. But even if he does, his victory will be pyrrhic. One-man rule will not keep the country together, nor will it address the mounting economic, social and security challenges that have arisen in equal part because of Erdogan’s policies and his personality. He may patch some holes, but in the larger picture, the ship is sinking. In fact, if Erdogan’s policies go off the rails, he may well precipitate rather than prevent a full military intervention.
Sadly, Western leaders have been active enablers of this process. Washington has sought Turkish support against ISIL, while Brussels needed Ankara’s help to solve the migration crisis. Both have cut cynical deals with Erdogan, ignored his abuses of power, and thereby empowered his position. Lest they want to watch Turkey descend further into the Middle Eastern morass, Western leaders will need to get out of their comfort zone and get involved in Turkish affairs.