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Erdogan and the future of Turkish democracy

Erdogan

The Turkish Republic has just survived a coup attempt by a “minority segment” of the military, in dramatic events that began to unfold on Friday night and which had mostly ended by Saturday morning.

Several thousand men from the army, gendarmerie and air force seized two of Istanbul’s main bridges that connect the Asian and European sides of the city, as well as capturing key infrastructure in Ankara. The rebels managed to take military commanders into custody, including the Chief of Defence Staff, Hulusi Akar, but utterly failed to capture political leaders, or even the hearts and minds of the Turkish people.

While the events of the aborted coup have been discussed elsewhere, it is important to examine what may be next for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Purging the Nurcus

Reports indicating that thousands of Turkish judges have been arrested and removed from their posts have raised eyebrows across the world, as people raise the question “What on earth do judges have to do with a coup attempt?”

The answer to this question lies in the accusation that Erdogan and others within his party have levelled at the elusive Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who operates the Hizmet Movement, more colloquially known as Nurcus in Turkey.

Former allies who helped each other to curb the political-militarism that had long plagued Turkey (four coups between 1960 and 1997), the Nurcus attempted to discredit Erdogan and launch a corruption probe into him and members of his cabinet when he was prime minister in 2013.

Reports indicating that thousands of Turkish judges have been arrested and removed from their posts have raised eyebrows across the world

This corruption scandal involved allegations that Erdogan and his associates were accepting bribes, and also helping Iran to evade sanctions by engaging in an “energy-for-gold” deal with the Turks. Gulen managed to do this because he had many police and judges in his pocket as they were ideologically loyal to his brand of Islamism. Erdogan responded by purging the police and judiciary.

However, Erdogan clearly feels that he missed a spot in his cleansing operation, and members of the political classes as well as the public believe that Gulen’s followers joined forces with a Kemalist (extreme secularists who idolize Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) set in the military.

Erdogan has now taken this as an opportunity to defang the military’s political ambitions once and for all, and mop up any remaining deluded generals searching for power as he successfully achieved through the controversial Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup conspiracies. He will also remove any last vestiges of Gulen’s loyalists from within the judiciary and try to ensure that branch of the state is free of their influence.

The coup’s effect on foreign relations

Despite Erdogan’s elaborate foreign policy pivots of the past month and his attempts to create warmer ties between Turkey and its more recent foes such as Israel, Russia and even Egypt and Syria, the international community was loath to get behind democracy and denounce its subversion at the hands of military men.

Perhaps reminiscent of events in Egypt, where democracy was bundled into a cesspool in favour of a military autocrat, the United States sat mostly silent for hours on end before making an announcement. Indeed, its Ankara embassy released a statement (now conveniently removed) declaring that the coup was in fact a “Turkish uprising” and provided its citizens with advice on staying safe.

Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well at all with Erdogan who, after securing his country and his hold on power, gave a speech questioning America’s friendship towards Turkey while they harbor Gulen. He further demanded that the US extradite his erstwhile foe.

Erdogan has struck back domestically and is arguably now in a position to become more powerful than ever before

Speaking of Egypt, not only did it block a UN declaration in support of democracy, but the heavily state-censored media immediately began to cheerlead for the coup instigators. Tawfiq Okasha, an Egyptian television personality best known for his hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, Palestinians, other Arabs and most things in between, declared, “This is not a coup, this is a revolution by the army”.

The distinction between the two is difficult to grasp for most people, but essentially Okasha was arguing that, like his beloved Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s latest pharaoh, the Turkish military was restoring “legitimate” rule. Unsurprisingly, very few around the world share Okasha’s opinion, or his vitriol, and it is unlikely that relations between Turkey and Egypt will improve any time soon.

Domestic power

Although his standing within Turkey had suffered due to the aforementioned concessions to both Israel and Russia, Erdogan has struck back domestically and is arguably now in a position to become more powerful than ever before.

Erdogan has long desired a constitutional change to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidency system of governance that would provide for a strong executive – namely himself – at the top

Regardless of what many people may think of him, even Turkish opposition parties as anti-Erdogan as the separatist Kurdish HDP denounced the putsch attempt almost immediately. Via FaceTime, Erdogan was able to rally an entire nation to descend onto the streets and tell the putschists that they refuse to allow the government, whether they voted for it or not, to be brought down illegitimately.

It is no secret that Erdogan has long desired a constitutional change to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidency system of governance that would provide for a strong executive – namely himself – at the top.

Indeed, Erdogan has already operated as such, even without that constitutional change, and so one might argue that Turkey is a de facto presidential system. This is unlikely to satisfy Erdogan, who will now likely use his increased stature as a man who brought the military to its knees repeatedly over the past decade, and he will increase his efforts to be the executive leader of a de jure presidential Turkish republic.

A master of populist discourse and winning elections, one should not be surprised if Erdogan takes advantage of his meteoric profile as the conqueror of the army that toppled four governments over forty years, and positively demands the people grant him the presidential powers he craves.

  • Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues”



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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field