By Jerome Roos
The images beamed from across the Bosphorus this weekend were surreal. For a few terrifying hours early on Saturday, no one really knew who was in control of the second largest military power in NATO. As tanks took up strategic positions in Istanbul and Ankara and the embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addressed an anxious nation from an undisclosed location via FaceTime, it briefly looked like the country might be in the throes of yet another full-blown and irreversible military coup.
Now that the dust is slowly starting to settle after a tumultuous and bloody night, the scale of the mutiny and the contours of the new Turkey are gradually starting to emerge. With the putschists all but defeated, an aggressive government purge of the army and judiciary is already underway. Some 2,800 soldiers are reported to be under arrest and 2,745 judges have been fired across the country for alleged links to Fethullah Gülen — the prominent US-based Muslim cleric who is accused by the Turkish government of plotting the coup.
Meanwhile, many young army conscripts, ordered into the streets by their superiors, have been lynched by pro-government protesters after trying to surrender — several of them beaten to death and one even decapitated by an angry mob. As throngs of flag-waving AKP supporters poured into the streets chanting slogans in support of the government, widespread social media calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty cast an ominous aura over the country’s future. Retribution is in the air.
At this point it remains unclear who is really behind the failed coup attempt. The international media initially speculated that secularists within the army might have turned on their increasingly autocratic Islamist commander-in-chief. Erdoğan himself immediately blamed Gülen, once his close ally but since 2013 his main political rival. Many in Turkey seem to believe the clumsy coup may even have been a false flag operation orchestrated by Erdoğan himself in anticipation of an even more malicious “self-coup”; a kind of present-day reenactment of the Reichstag fire. Yet another explanation centers on a group of officers who may have feared being forced into retirement in a planned restructuring of the army next month.
At this stage we can only speculate as to the real perpetrators and their precise motives. One thing, though, is certain: whoever was behind the failed coup attempt, the immediate outcome of this dramatic turn of events will only be to concentrate and consolidate even more power in Erdoğan’s hands, allowing him to further strengthen his hold on the state apparatus and extend his increasingly authoritarian rule over Turkey.
By providing the president with a perfect pretext to purge the army, the judiciary and even the wider society of all opponents, while possibly lending him the popular support he needs for a long-coveted constitutional reform that would turn Turkey into a presidential republic, the army’s spectacular but inane act of defiance — clumsily enacted and rapidly defeated as it was — may yet play into Erdoğan’s hands.
To understand why, we need to see the coup in its political context. In an excellent article, Giran Ozcan recently highlighted how Erdoğan’s rise to power has been marked by a series of widening rifts within the ruling elite. Over the years, Erdoğan has clashed with the top brass of the largely Kemalist military; with the so-called “White Turks”, or Istanbul’s secular and cosmopolitan bourgeoisie; and most recently of course with his estranged Islamist ally Fethullah Gülen.
At the same time, Erdoğan has managed to alienate growing sections of the national population, producing an escalation of social tensions in the process. In 2013, popular outrage about “the Sultan’s” anti-democratic ways and the creeping Islamization and neoliberalization of society burst out into the open with the Gezi Uprising, in which scores of protesters were killed by police. Since then, the government has been violently cracking down on all forms of public protest as well as the freedom of the press, academia and social media.
Even more significantly, however, Erdoğan has in recent years personally dragged Turkey into two increasingly bitter conflicts. First, he joined the side of the extremist opposition in Syria in a poorly calculated bid to oust his regional rival, President Bashar al Assad, providing vital logistical, financial and military support to the Al Nusra Front and even to ISIS, before reluctantly realizing his initial mistake and grudgingly joining (or pretending to join) the international coalition in the fight against the latter.
Then, in 2014, he unilaterally suspended the ceasefire and peace negotiations with the PKK and effectively restarted the civil war with the country’s largest minority group, the Kurds. Increasingly troubled by the military and revolutionary advances of PKK-affiliated freedom fighters across the border in Syria, Erdoğan made an aggressive move to undermine the Kurds’ struggle for democratic autonomy in Turkey’s southeast, razing entire villages and neighborhoods to the ground and killing hundreds of civilians in the process.
The state-led witch hunt against the Kurds has since been expanded to the leftist opposition party HDP, which remains the principal electoral obstacle to Erdoğan’s ambitions to establish a presidential system with himself at the helm. HDP’s representatives were recently stripped of their immunity for allegedly “abetting terrorism”. With the intensification and spillover of these two conflicts in recent months, Turkey itself has become increasingly destabilized — a troublesome development that has found a bloody expression in the wave of terror attacks that have rocked the country over the past year.
All of this has in turn been accompanied by a budding financial crisis resulting from a slowing economy, sky-rocketing private debt, a gaping current account deficit and a rapidly falling lira, which are putting major pressure on borrowers and the central bank, raising the risk of a wave of defaults. Only one month ago, the Financial Times warned that Turkish corporate debt is just “a few shocks away from a crisis.” Images of tanks in the streets are obviously more than just a shock. The lira instantly lost 5 percent of its value in trading late on Friday; its largest fall since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Amidst these escalating crises and conflicts on all fronts, Erdoğan’s position as the country’s undisputed leader was increasingly at risk of suffering a series of debilitating blows. In this turbulent context, the president was always going to be well-served by a national emergency allowing him to “legitimately” crack down on all opposition and draw even greater powers to himself — even if this temporary fix ultimately comes at the expense of social harmony, national unity and political stability, thereby further undermining Erdoğan’s capacity to successfully and effectively govern in the long run.
The next days and weeks may answer some of the most pressing questions and reveal how deep the putsch really extended into the military, and how much support Erdoğan still commands within the wider state apparatus. While the president now basks in the momentary glory of having survived an attempted coup through an impressive and fearless popular mobilization in the streets, this collective act of insubordination by a significant part of the army constitutes the single biggest challenge to his leadership yet. It is not clear if all of this will eventually be interpreted as a sign of weakness or strength.
What is clear, however, is that the loyalist countercoup will bring an intensification of political repression and social tensions to Turkey. Whoever is behind this, Erdoğan will undoubtedly use the coup — staged or real — as a pretext to crush all opposition to his supreme rule. No surprise, then, that he has already referred to the failed uprising as a “gift from God”. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that it may yet turn out to be a poisoned chalice.
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