Turkey under fire: from a failed coup attempt to the de-Gülenization of the State

There have been many things said about the 15th July coup attempt in Turkey, resulted in at least 246 people dead, more than 2.000 injured and even more in the after-coup purge which targeted sympathizers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen – in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Public opinion is divided over the coup: while some claimed that it was the last cry of the remaining Kemalist factions of the army to save Turkish democracy from an increasingly authoritarian leader, others condemned the coup, referring to  the putschists as “anti-democratic forces”.

Is Turkey still a democracy?

Even though more and more Western observers use terms like “dictatorship” or “sultanate” to describe the Turkish regime, Turkey is technically still a democracy, the representatives being chosen by free, fair and regular elections. On the other hand, failing to uphold the principles of constitutional liberalism – according to Freedom House’s report Turkey is only partly free, freedom of press and expression being of particular concern  – makes Turkey at most a Russia-like  illiberal democracy and not a dictatorship. Even so, probably the most liberal and prosperous period in the republic’s history was registered in the first decade of the much criticized AKP government – worth to mention in this regard the improvement of minority rights, reaching its peaks with the so-called “Kurdish opening”, the abolition of the death penalty, the implementation of a large number of pro-European reforms, the economic growth (while the West was facing economic crisis) as well as the famous “zero problems with neighbours” policy. However, in recent years the situation has worsened among the unsettling developments – leaving aside the consequences of the failed coup attempt –  for example with regards to the curbs on free speech (a legacy of the Kemalist regime), the authoritarian tendencies, the corruption, the AKP-Gülen schism, the deep social divisions, resuming the war against the PKK, and the impact of the Syrian crisis  (Turkey’s is currently hosting nearly 3 million immigrants and has witnessed an increase in ISIS terror attacks).

The Turkish junta and democracy

By definition, military coups are not compatible with democracy. However, in the history of Turkey, the army interfered in politics whenever secularism and the territorial integrity of the state were threatened by Islamist or separatist political parties. The military declared itself to be the guarantor of Turkish democracy, overthrowing authoritarian governments and then, after restoring order, retreating from politics. Their presence in politics was justified by the lack of an efficient political class and of a strong civil society. The military junta was very popular in Turkey and resistance and opposition to its actions  was minimal in the past. The junta rebelled against the government in 1960, 1971 and 1980, while in 1997 carried out a post-modern coup forcing Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to resign. In all cases, the transition from military dictatorship to democracy was difficult, bloody and full of repression. Thousands of intellectuals, politicians, activists and students were imprisoned, some even assassinated, while political parties and NGOs were abolished and the press silenced. However, with a few exceptions, after the restoration of democracy the ideological descendants of the previously banned political parties dominated the political arena, changing their name and adapting themselves to the new order.

Turks united against the coup

Consequently, on 15th July Turks chose the “lesser evil”, as to say a weak democracy instead of an uncertain military dictatorship. This doesn’t mean that all those who opposed the putsch support president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Analyzing Turkish social media, one can notice the diversity of those who spoke out against the coup – among them secularists, liberals, nationalists and conservatives, as well as members of minority groups. So, the Turkish society condemned almost unanimously the putsch. This reality is reflected  as well on a political level : for the first time since elected in its current composition, the Turkish parliament – CHP (the historical Kemalist party), MHP (far right party) and HDP (pro-Kurdish party) and the ruling AKP – has adopted a joint statement condemning the coup. It was a first sign of national unity after the November 2015 election. While during and after the Gezi Park protest in 2013 the then prime minister Erdoğan used a divisive language distinguishing between pious Turks, the nation, respectively the AKP supporters and everyone else – depending on cases: looters, hooligans (Gezi protestors), terrorists, traitors (HDP supporters, Hizmet members) – after the failed coup attempt, prime minister Binali Yıldırım thanked all social factions and opposition parties for the anti-coup stance adopted, including the “no. 1 enemy” of the government, the HDP party – accused of supporting the PKK and “held guilty” of the AKP’s failure to obtain the majority needed to change the Constitution in the 2015 elections -. Relations between Erdoğan and the pro-Kurdish party are still tense, the president inviting all opposition parties except for the HDP to negotiations, reaching a consensus over small constitutional changes and measures needed to prevent a new coup. The prime minister, however, declared that all political parties, including the HDP, could join the process.

The great dilemma – who is behind the failed putsch?

In the West the leading trend was to accuse Erdoğan of staging the coup to consolidate his power. On the other hand Turkish press and public opinion, with few exceptions, pointed to the movement of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, former ally of the Turkish ruling party. While Gülen condemned the coup and rejected any direct accusation, without excluding the possibility of Hizmet members being involved in the putsch, the probability of the military coup being organized by the president himself is minimal even though he is the greatest winner, the failed putsch giving him free hand to eliminate his opponents. In the past Gülen and Erdoğan’s AKP were close allies, their stated purpose being the creation of a unique and sustainable model of Muslim democracy. As all forms of Islamism or Islamic politics were opposed by the Kemalist establishment, they worked together to undermine the Turkish junta’s political power and its role of guardian of secularism. Worth to mention the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer high profile cases, as well as Gülenists inside the judiciary and police fabricating evidence against military officials, opposition politicians and journalists accusing them of plotting a coup to topple the AKP government. As a result many people were jailed, the vacated positions being occupied by Hizmet followers. Many of those who investigated and criticized the Gülenists’ infiltration in the state institutions (especially Kemalists) were jailed and released only in 2015, when Erdoğan “made peace” with the army. According to an article from 1986 published in Nokta there have already been attempts of Hizmet to infiltrate its members in the Turkish army with the stated purpose to rule Turkey in the 21st Century. Furthermore, over the years, Gülen’s movement has been accused of stealing the solutions of KPSS exams (Public personnel selection examination) to promote their own students. The presence of Hizmet followers in the Turkish state is neither a recent nor an unknown development. After the growing rift between Gülen and Erdoğan, the latter started to cleanse state institutions, including the army, of Hizmet followers. Most probably the coup was staged by members of armed forces under investigation for being part of the so-called parallel or deep state led by Gülen, and would have been arrested or lost their dominance during the Supreme Military Council in August as planned. Consequently, the coup could be the targeted generals’ last attempt to secure their position or to escape prosecution. Other theory suggests that the Kemalist faction of the army tricked the Gülenists into staging the coup, in order to eliminate them from the army.

What would have happened if the coup had succeeded?

A successful coup would have probably led to civil war, the victorious army faction having to cope with the rest of the Turkish army which did not support the coup and with all the civil opponents. Even if in the end the army had managed to restore order, Turkey would have followed, perhaps a similar way to that of Sisi’s Egypt. The next elections would have been won by the same AKP (possibly renamed), given the party’s popularity and the poorly organized opposition. Moreover, outlawing the AKP party and arresting its members would have led to bloody riots, leaving only one option – that of a military dictatorship.

Turkey after the coup

The coup failed. Putschists and everyone connected with the Hizmet movement are being punished. The International Press Institute warned that if all those against whom warrants were sought would be detained, Turkey will become for the second time the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Although the “witch hunt” is criticized, most of the Turks seem to approve the measure and Gülen becoming the subject of national hatred. The hunt is not over, and the declaration of a three-month state emergency indicates that the measures taken are only the beginning. Turkey taings the road of total de-Gülenisation. The recent terrorist attacks, failed coup attempt and anti-Gülen purge have affected not only the country’s stability but also its credibility as a regional player, post-coup measures being decisive for Turkey’s future. Without underestimating its devastating effects, the coup attempt had some positive outcomes as well: uniting a deeply divided society and searching for a common ground in the political arena.

Iulia Oprea

Ph.D Candidate in History of Europe at Sapienza University of Rome


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