Erdogan survives coup but unlikely to draw lessons
ISTANBUL - He weathered anti-government protests that lasted for months in 2013. He escaped the flames that engulfed some of his ministers in a corruption investigation. And now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has survived a military coup — a boast many of his predecessors cannot share.
No one in Turkey predicted what happened July 16th when soldiers took control of Istanbul’s two main bridges across the Bosporus and flew F-16 fighter jets low over Ankara. Soldiers stormed into private and state-run broadcasters taking control with relative ease.
However, in a country that has seen a series of military coups, there have always been signs of fault lines that could prompt such a move.
In recent years, critics, foreign governments and Turkish citizens have expressed concerns about a steady decline into authoritarianism under Erdogan. Although he won much praise in the first few years after becoming prime minister in 2003, since becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president in August 2014 Erdogan has been accused of dictatorial ambitions.
Erdogan wants to change Turkey’s constitution — installed in 1980 following a military coup — to adopt an American-style presidential system that would give him greater power.
According to Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, the latest coup was a result of many factors, including the military’s fear of the new system.
He said the reasons for the coup included “one of the latest developments (that) has been the bill redesigning the high courts as well as Erdogan’s refusal to be impartial”.
For Sinan Ulgen, director of the Edam think-tank and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, this was not a coup by the full army as in previous cases but undertaken by a clique that held the top general hostage.
“This was beyond the chain of command — a relatively small group in the army, who even hijacked the military top brass,” Ulgen said. “It was not an operation designed by the army and it showed. Without the full support of the army, they lacked the assets and capabilities.”
Erdemir said the era of successful coups is over with the public largely hostile to the prospect. This time the country put on more of a show of solidarity, with even the three opposition parties in parliament swiftly condemning the attempted putsch.
Political parties do not have “fond memories” of the previous coups given their bitter experiences under military rulers, said Erdemir.
Ulgen added: “When people realised it did not have backing of the army, it was easier to be against the coup.”
Indeed, the sheer odds against the coup spawned conspiracy theories with the hashtag #Darbedegiltiyatro — “It’s not a coup; it’s theatre” — trending on Twitter.
Natalie Martin, politics and international relations lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in Britain, said it appeared “almost meant to fail”, something that created suspicions.
“It is entirely possible it’s a false flag coup,” she said.
Erdogan, a consummate political tactician, will sense the failed coup has created opportunities to tighten his control over Turkey but faces a critical choice.
“He can build on the fact that all parties got behind him and build an era of consensus or he can use this as an opportunity to consolidate his one-man rule,” said Erdemir.
“It’s almost fully up to Erdogan — the path he chooses will have enormous consequences. The optimist in me goes for the democratic way but the realist and pessimist says Erdogan would never miss such an opportunity and that would be a shame.”
Erdogan will come out of this stronger, Ulgen said, but “the question is whether he is willing to use that to drive towards a more consensual politics.
“This is a unique opportunity to advance a more ambitious democracy agenda but the more likely scenario is Erdogan using it to drive his personal ambitions and create a presidential system.”