The current and now failed coup attempt causing initial disruption in Istanbul and Ankara may indeed be sending shockwaves through Turkey but no one who follows Turkish politics should be overly surprised. For a good few years now the Army has played a key role in the control of the country and four major coups and a number of failed coups have all centred around the army attempting to wrest away the control of the Government and give power to those who best represented the Coup plotters.
While the recently elected President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan had been attempting to lead his country away from Military control, although the Government portrayed this as allowing more space for democracy, some commentators claim it was simply to allow the President to displace possible opponents. In any event, some who preferred the previous form of government were concerned about the shift in power. Some of the established military leadership were showing distinct discomfit at their loss of political power. To gain control of the Army, President Erdoğan had been replacing much of the top leadership with officers who had shown more loyalty to his style of control. In particular more recently he had focussed on displacing officers who supported the ultra conservative Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who claims to support traditional secularism of the Ataturk variety and who lives in self-exile in the US, where from his Pennsylvania headquarters he apparently exerts surprising influence over his shadowy followers.
Those commentators with a memory will recall a few years back Erdoğan had actually used the Gülen network to gain political power but after the Gülen movement became involved in challenging the President with embarrassing charges of corruption directed to the President’s leadership, Erdoğan reacted by showing his total opposition to Gülen’s followers, declaring them to be an illegitimate parallel state.
Another group in the Army who have previously indicated strong disillusionment with the new regime were the secularists who resented the current President and his party on the grounds they have attempted to take Turkey back to an earlier form of Islamic control. Over the next few days we can expect to find which of the two disenchanted groups are likely to have led the attempted coup. The arrest of many judges and officers who were not visibly involved in the failed coup suggests there is still strong opposition to the government.
With the wisdom of hindsight, in the final analysis the coup would appear to have been unlikely to succeed if only because the President had established strong leadership apparently loyal to his form of control. In addition he appeared to have a good measure of popular support. The appearance of large numbers of his supporters on the streets does not of course mean that those currently keeping a low profile are an insignificant danger. Even the support for the president from other world leaders does not mean they all approve of his style of leadership. Another interpretation is merely that those other leaders understand the need for some form of stability for a Nation that has such a key role to be played in re-establishing peace in the region.
It is true that a good percentage of the population clearly approved of the President and the last vote did return him to power. However it is also well known there is a traditional enthusiasm in another large part of the population for the traditional secularism that distinguished Turkey from many of its neighbours. These like the more conservative Muslim total hardliners are still among the population and are unlikely to be satisfied with the current position. Sacking or standing down more than 2000 judges many of whom are highly respected in the community may help the President re-establish control but assuming these judges have supporters and followers, this is likely to produce further problems down the track.
Another consideration is that since unlike some previous coups the Army and Police are deeply divided over judging if the President has performed well and although the President’s support base has given power to senior loyalists the initial reactions to the coup attempt are worrying in the unknown effect this will have on the dissatisfied groups. A real unknown is how much influence the Gülenists still retain in the critical Judicial and Security branches of the government.
Although the currentunderstanding is that the current Coup attempt is a total failure, if past reactions are anything to go by, the Coup plotters and instigators (who would at least have the support of the many disenchanted with the President), are likely to suffer extreme punishment which is hardly calculated to help long term stability. Stability was already threatened by the failure of the Government to keep a lid on ISIS and PKK attacks and there was concern being expressed by NATO about Turkey’s lack of willingness to take appropriate steps to meet its border issues. A failed spectacular coup attempt even if not successful is likely to add to the worries of Turkey’s neighbours and allies. One development which will concern the EU is the likely reinstatement of the death penalty to deal with the coup plotters. In 2004 the EU had pressured Turkey to remove the death penalty as part of the conditions of EU membership. The EU members have continued to hold back on accepting Turkey into membership because of signs of authoritarian control. One demonstration in support of the President called for death for the Coup leaders. The president responded by saying that since Turkey was a democracy, the people’s voice would be heard. The EU leadership will not be impressed.
A real additional worry is how current antagonistic groups such as ISIS and various Kurdish rebels eg the PKK, might take advantage of the current instability by launching various terrorist actions. The closure of military air space, the arrest of the general in-charge of the key air base used for launching US air attacks on ISIS and the temporary close down of all missions against ISIS indicates just how dependent Turkey has become on stability.
Apart from the current disruption to the all important Tourism sector of the economy, overseas investors are now likely to become very jumpy. President Erdoğan had what some commentators described as a surprisingly calming effect on the Turkish economy, encouraging plenty of investment and getting very positive growth underway.
The catch was that much of this growth has been achieved on the back of substantial loans which in the short term at least must be now seen as considerably at risk. If the tourists and investors are now frightened off and if the power which is currently split between considerable numbers of supporters and opponents of the Erdoğan Government cannot work towards a quick and peaceful end to hostilities there are likely to be serious long term repercussions.
The most worrying aspect of the President’s leadership is that although he might enjoy a current small majority, his authoritarian autocratic and conservative Islamic approach is very divisive and many are deeply worried about the direction he has chosen for Turkey. For example his government has recently done something of a U Turn and announced they are supporting the beleaguered Syrian Government.
Certainly the EU, Russia and the US as well as NATO have a particular interest in encouraging an immediate return to some form of stability. With something like 800 km border in common with Syria, and other borders with Iraq and Iran, Turkey has had considerable potential influence in Syria and Iraq(and not always in a positive sense) and what happens to the stability of the area is inevitably dependent on the good-will and focus of the Turkish government. It must be said that while Turkey has been able to accept some of the refugees some critics have been claiming that unwise responses from Turkey may have aggravated the situation.
I am quite happy to allow that President Erdoğan is in the process of reasserting control. I would also have to admit I am not currently planning a holiday to Turkey any time soon.