On July 15th 2016 just before 11:00 pm, the country of Turkey experienced its fifth military coup in the past 60 years. However, this illegal attempt to overthrow the government was different from the others, and there is still missing information regarding what happened. This post analyzes the causes of the coup by examining Turkey’s history and political structure and shedding light on the sources of citizens’ support or opposition to President Erdogan. The blog concludes with reflections on the U.S. reaction to the coup.
The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as its president. He established Kemalism, an ideology which is based on Western values. It was his way of forming the new Republic of Turkey from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire by focusing on democracy, science, and education. Its six pillars – Republicanism, Populism, Nationalism, Secularism, Statism, and Reformism – are protected by the Turkish Armed Forces (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri, TSK). In fact, the TSK are charged with protecting the Constitution and keeping the Republic secular.
Military coups in Turkey are not uncommon. Dating back to 1960, the military has used its force to unseat the government. However, it has been almost twenty years since the last successful military coup in Turkey in 1997, and was even considered a “soft coup” as the military worked with businesses and the government to issue several recommendations to the Turkish government. So what is so different about this particular coup?
President Erdogan and Gulen
There is still speculation over who exactly was behind this coup d’état. President Erdogan claims that the coup mongers were not in fact Kemalists, but instead were Gulenist officers, followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Sunni clerk who has been in self-imposed exile in the United States for over sixteen years. However, Gulen denies any involvement in the coup.
Gulen and Erdogan initially started off as friends. As Gulen advocated combining education and science with Islam and faith-based activism, he and Erdogan became close over their shared opposition to secular Kemalist forces in Turkey. They both sought to increase their influence and wanted to transform Turkey into a state based on core religious values. Initially, Gulen even supported the AKP when it was founded.
However, their relationship became strained after Gulen criticized the way Erdogan handled the 2013 protests and Erdogan accused Gulen of trying to bring down the government. Over time, Gulen’s philosophy has put him at odds with Erdogan as he believes there are too many Islamist policies at the expense of secularism. As Gulen has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999, the two men have not interacted face-to-face in many years.
Erdogan (left) and Gulen (right)
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014, and has been President of Turkey ever since. This makes him the longest serving leader of the Turkish Republic since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. His presidency is different from the presidencies before him. As Turkey has both a Prime Minister and a President, the President traditionally served simply as a ceremonial head of state, while the Prime Minister is the leader of the cabinet and head of government. However, Erdogan has vastly expanded the power of the President at the expense of the Prime Minister. For example, one of the biggest changes Erdogan made was abolishing the indirect selection of the President by the Prime Minister and establishing direct popular elections to fill the presidency. In fact, 2014 marked the first time a President was popularly voted into office in Turkey.
In addition, the President of Turkey was initially supposed to be non-partisan and impartial. Again, Erdogan has changed that. Like the Prime Minister, he is a founding member of the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), or the Justice and Development Party, which is a conservative party in Turkey that was created in 2001. He is claiming to use the formal powers of the President outlined in the 1982 Turkish Constitution, such as calling Parliament and appointing members of the judiciary. Arguably, strengthening the executive power of the presidency has made Erdogan more popular. Although most coups arise out of popular unrest, the public of Turkey did not widely support this coup attempt. For instance, unlike countries such as Egypt where coups usually followed large protest movements, that was not the case in Turkey.
Another remarkable feature of this coup that separates it from the others in Turkey is the amount of public support the government received in defeating the rebels. After the military failed to capture President Erdogan or Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, President Erodgan flew into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and gave a conference where he urged Turkish citizens to take to the streets and defeat the military rebels. The government was able to take advantage of social media and use it to its advantage to encourage the public. The assurance that their president was still alive seemed to be the turning point in the coup that secured victory for the government. It was the Turkish people who risked their lives for the government and took back their country by rallying behind President Erdogan.
In addition to not having public support, the coup also lacked political backing. Although the coup did have some military force and tanks took to the streets and many soldiers were involved, the plotters did not have the force of the chief of staff, Gen Hulusi Akar, nor the support of the head of the army in Istanbul. The navy chief and special forces commander also spoke out against the uprising. The CHP, another secular party in Turkey that favors Kemalist ideas, did not even support the coup as its leaders believed Turkey had suffered through too many coups in the past.
Part of what made this coup unique was that it was not near an election year. Although a majority of coups in democratic institutions are right around an election, one can see from the Washington Post graphic that the coup occurred almost 24 months after the election in 2014, and is even further away from the next scheduled election in 2019.
This could be part of the reason why the majority of the public was not behind the coup- there was no sense of urgency as the next election is so far away.
Part of the reason why many are doubtful that Gulen was behind the coup is that it was so poorly planned. The President was alerted about the coup and was able to leave his vacation in the Mediterranean before rebel forces arrived. By the time he arrived in Istanbul at 3AM and had delivered his famous message that was broadcast all around Turkey, the coup was already almost defeated.
The coup claimed over 300 lives and over 2,000 people were injured.
Opponents of President Erdogan
President Erdogan is often described as an “autocratic leader intolerant of dissent who harshly silences anyone who tries to oppose him” (BBC, 2016). Although he was elected democratically, there are fears that he has taken on many autocratic tendencies. For example, many Turkish journalists are under investigation and have been put on trial. Because he has taken control over the judiciary branch, he is also often accused of using the judiciary to silence critics. According to Human Rights Watch, his government’s interference with the courts and prosecutors has undermined judicial independence and the rule of law. His rise to power has been accompanied by an array of human rights violations and personal vendettas such as the arrest of three sons of Cabinet Ministers who protested against his rule over the summer.
One of the reasons for the coup was that the military has grown increasingly resentful of President Erdogan. Over the years he has further curbed their powers as AKP has its roots in Islam and the military of Turkey sees itself as the defender of democracy and secular traditions within the Republic of Turkey. President Erdogan is accused of being too Islamist, which clashes heavily with the military. He wanted to create “alcohol free zones,” criminalize adultery (although both motions failed), and lifted the ban on headscarves in state institutions.
Interestingly, the Presidential Complex of President Erdogan is over 30 times larger than the White House with 1,000 rooms just outside of Ankara. The total cost of the whole project exceeded 7 billion USD, and just the energy bill alone is almost 400,000 USD per month (Sputnik News, 2016). Opponents of President Erdogan view this grandiose and extravagant lifestyle as a sign of autocratic leadership.
Since the coup, the Turkish government has decided to use derogations to temporarily suspend their treaty on Human Rights during this state of emergency. Derogations are a “way-out” in a treaty to encourage more states to sign it. Unfortunately, they tend to authorize deviant behavior precisely when compliance is needed. Already, over 20,000 people have been detained since the coup and another 60,000 people have lost their jobs (Columbia University, 2016). Hundreds of media outlets have been shut down, and prisoners are reporting torture and abuse. President Erdogan even had almost 34,000 prisoners released from prison in order to make room for “coup plotters”, many of whom were teachers and civil servants accused of working with the Gulen Movement (The Independent, 2016). Given how quickly people were rounded up, people suspect that President Erdogan must have had secret intelligence prior to the coup.
Unfortunately, President Erdogan is seen as one of the most divisive leaders in the Turkish Republic since its founding.
Supporters of Erdogan
President Erdogan is certainly a skilled politician. He managed to advance Turkey towards democratically electing their president, and has been in power since 2003. Many of his supporters call him a “man of public service”, and view the progress he has made for Turkey as more significant than his autocratic tendencies. For example, he has led numerous infrastructure projects to help clean up the streets in Turkey. Supporters truly believe he has modernized Turkey. Others call him “Sultan” as a reference to what they called leaders during the Ottoman Empire.
He is also very charismatic which helps explain why he was able to mobilize so much of the public during the coup and put an end to it as quickly as he did. In addition, he comes from a humble background (his father was a coast guard and he sold lemonade on the street as a kid to make money), which many of his supporters also view favorably.
In addition, the economy has vastly improved since Erdogan’s presidency. Although critics would most likely attribute the economic prosperity to Cabinet Ministers such as Kemal Dervis, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2001 when the crisis began, President Erdogan at the very least continued the programs Dervis set out and the country has drastically improved. For instance, Dervis set up loan programs with the IMF and the World Bank, which Turkey has been paying back on schedule under President Erdogan.
From 1990 to 2001 the Turkish economy became very weak due to a series of small crises. However, “no measures were taken to safeguard the economy against potential future crises in the future” making Turkey very vulnerable to inflationary pressure. In fact, inflation ranged between 70% and 90% (University of Chicago, 2014). Turkey also experienced a liquidity crisis in November 2000 due to “a result of the reduction in the general availability of loans and credit.” During that time, interest rates fluctuated overnight. For example, in July of 2000, rates went up from 23.7% to 79.6% and got as high as 873.1% in December of 2000, further overvaluing the Turkish lira (University of Chicago, 2014).
On February 21st of 2001, Turkey experienced its own Black Wednesday when the Turkish Lira collapsed. Six days later, inflation rates peaked at 4024.7%. This is illustrated in University of Chicago’s analysis of the Turkish economy. Since President Erdogan has been in office, inflation has been relatively stable.
One of the reasons the EU had initially rejected Turkey’s application to join it was the role of the military in Turkish politics. President Erdogan’s effort to reduce the power of the military could be seen as a positive step towards democracy and admission to the EU.
Shortly after the coup, the United States (along with many other Western powers) immediately announced their unwavering support to the democratic government in Turkey and came out in favor of President Erdogan. President Obama has made it clear that the United States supports democratically elected governments all around the world, and will not side with terrorism. “The President and Secretary agreed that all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed” (White House, 2016). By supporting the Turkish government, the United States is trying to peacefully promote democracy there.
Although aware that Turkey is not necessarily the leading advocate of freedom of expression, the United States and much of the Western World recognizes Turkey’s strategic importance. As an important member of NATO (and the only member in the Middle East), Turkey provides a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and is also highly valued in the EU. In addition, Turkey hosts more than 2.5 billion Syrian refugees (BBC, 2016).
Because of its strategic location, Turkey is also invaluable in the fight against ISIS as American jets use its Incirlik air base to lead airstrikes against the extremists in Iraq and Syria. In addition, there is a strong chance that if the current Turkish government lost the support of the United States, Turkey could become an outpost for Russia and Iran. Without Turkey, the United States is essentially defenseless in the region, which is especially dangerous for Israel, one of its closest allies. Currently, Turkey stands as an effective counterweight against Iran.
However, if there is one idea the Turkish people have unified around, it is the allegation that the United States was behind the coup. Fethullah Gulen, President Erdogan’s prime suspect, is currently residing in Pennsylvania, and President Erdogan is demanding his extradition back to Turkey. Unfortunately, relationships between Turkey and the United States have deteriorated recently as President Obama does not believe Turkey has been doing enough to help the fight against ISIS, and President Erdogan dislikes American support for Syrian Kurdish rebels.
The United States surely does not want to lose the relationship it has with Turkey. However, the extradition process could prove to be quite lengthy. Its speed is controlled by the U.S. government, which is already suggesting the process will be slow. The United States has to consider whether Gulen is likely to get a fair trial in Turkey, especially considering Turkey has already arrested thousands of Gulen’s alleged followers. Over time, President Erdogan’s insistence on Gulen’s extradition or his decision to back down on the demand for extradition, will surely also play a role.
As mentioned previously, there is still some confusion and lack of clarity surrounding the events on July 15th, 2016, even two and a half months after the coup took place. However, the world waits with baited breath to find out what this will mean for the Middle East and US-Turkey relations.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.