Should Turkey brace itself for another coup?
In the end it all came down to maths. “They simply didn’t have the numbers in place,” says James Pothecary, a political risk analyst at consultancy Allan & Associates, as I ask him why rebel factions of the army failed to seize power in Turkey last Friday.
That’s not the first impression they gave. In the evening, for a few hours, they held Istanbul’s main bridges and a major TV studio, from which they broadcast an announcement stating the ostensible goal of their operation: “to reinstall the constitutional order, democracy, human rights and freedoms”.
Their grip proved short-lived. With insufficient manpower to control other broadcasters, let alone Facebook and Twitter, they “failed to control the new narrative,” Pothecary says. And rapidly it was too late. A mass text message, sent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the early hours, urged Turks in their thousands to take to the streets “in defence of democracy and peace”.
It worked. “The people even reached the party headquarters before the army,” Jane Kandur, a board member of the Istanbul branch of the ruling AKP party, tells me. “That’s how quickly they reacted. They were not afraid of bullets, of the bombs being dropped.” In the event, as many as 161 civilians and police lost their lives. But they got the outcome they wanted: within 10 hours most rebel soldiers had surrendered.
Coup supporters have emerged defeated and hated. Worse, their attempt has since gravely backfired: around 60,000 soldiers, police, judges, civil servants and teachers have been suspended or detained since the putsch was disrupted. “It's a paradox. Rebel factions said they wanted to defend democracy, but their failure has precipitated the opposite: Erdogan’s drive towards autocracy is happening at an accelerated rate,” says Henry Wilkinson, head of intelligence and analysis at Risk Advisory, a consultancy.
"This wasn't an isolated set of soldiers under a charismatic ideologue. Dissatisfaction with the government appears widely diffused" - James Pothecary
The cleansing is likely to continue. The president declared a three-month state of emergency on Wednesday; yesterday he suspended the European Convention of Human Rights to further expedite matters. Meanwhile, opposition parties are in a bind: they can’t be seen not to be condemning the coup, yet the ensuing crackdown is concentrating ever more power into the hands of the country’s rulers.
“Don’t misunderstand it, a lot of people in Turkey would have been quite happy for Erdogan to leave and for the army to take power again,” notes Pothecary. “But people who are against the coup have been very organised and are very loud. Erdogan is going to capitalise on the momentum he has to continue the purge for as long he can.”
The government has no doubts about who to blame for Turkey’s latest mutiny. “The Gulenists,” interjects Kandur as I ask her the question, her voice shivering with anger. There’s “no question” the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gülen, an ally-turned-foe of Erdogan now exiled in Pennsylvania, has masterminded the bloody episode.
Not everybody is convinced. “The Turkish military has always been very skeptical of the political role of Islam,” says Pothecary. “They see themselves as the guardian of the secular republic.”
Instead there are strong suspicions that the president is using the coup as an excuse to quash any dissent within institutions, military or civil. The speed, scale and breadth of this week’s purge suggests as much. “The government had clearly been monitoring people for some time. They knew in advance who they wanted to go after,” says Wilkinson.
The crackdown’s effects are likely to be disastrous. From top commanders to university deans, it has already put very senior people out of a job (I tried to reach out to university professors but I got no response). Much institutional knowledge is going to be lost; loyalty to the regime will likely trump experience and competence when it comes to filling vacancies. The cull will hurt soldiers’ cohesion and morale at a time when they’re fighting militants at home and ISIS in Syria.
“The government had clearly been monitoring people for some time. They knew in advance who they wanted to go after" - Henry Wilkinson
Turkey’s checks and balances, already weak, are also eroding fast. With critical judges now out, the courts are likely to be very politicised. Erdogan’s attempts to pass political reforms, starting by its efforts to turn the presidency into a powerful executive office, are unlikely to face legal challenges. “The political system will soon be much less transparent,” says Wilkinson.
Erdogan’s latest moves have also antagonised the West. Bar a complete U-turn, the start of Turkey’s EU accession process has probably been pushed back by at least a decade. Without this carrot in sight, the country will be much less inclined to undertake the political and regulatory reforms the process demands. All this could breed bad decision-making and corruption while scaring off investors, reckons Wilkinson.
One of the region’s leading economies and a key member of NATO, Turkey won’t shut itself out of the Western world overnight, says Ali Sökmen, an associate analyst at Control Risk, a consultancy.
At home, however, the president could eventually bring about what he seems so desperate to avoid. “When you can’t provoke change legally, you pursue it through other means,” says Wilkinson. With public outrage at last week’s putsch attempt still very high, potential plotters will stay put for at least several months. But within a year, the possibility of a second putsch is not to be discounted, says Pothecary.
“This wasn't an isolated set of soldiers under a charismatic ideologue. It involved elements of the first, second and third armies, as well as elements of the Turkish navy. Dissatisfaction with the government appears widely diffused.” Many think last Friday’s events were a rushed version of a larger attempt scheduled for later, triggered ahead of a reshuffle that would have removed many of its alleged organisers.
With the army soon to be restructured, it will be very hard for second-time coupsters to succeed. But as Turks grow increasingly frustrated with their autocratic leader, the mayhem another rebellion would create might just turn out to be the last straw. “Whether or not they like the result of the ballot, Turks want to be ruled by the ballot box,” says Kandur. No doubt she is right. But surely Turks also want a say in how the ballot box rules them.