An attempted coup is still ongoing in Turkey as I write early Saturday morning. Images of military personnel being arrested en masse, as well as reports that much of the military remained united with Erdogan against the coup backers and opened fire on the coup-backed military forces, seem to indicate that the coup has failed and that the Erdogan regime has retaken control. Still, few know precisely what is going on.
One thing is clear, however: Turkey and the Turkish people stand to lose no matter who wins this power struggle today and over the coming the weeks.
On one side is President Recep Erdogan, a ruthless authoritarian who was officially named Turkey’s first directly elected president in 2014 by a slim democratic majority–though allegations of vote rigging and election theft remain troubling. Erdogan has been consolidating power to himself in a slow march to dictatorship ever since (and, truthfully, in the whole decade prior to the 2014 election when he was prime minister.)
Erdogan’s base of support–just as with Putin in Russia, the Ayatollahs in Iran and Republicans in the United States–derives from older rural religious and social conservatives. Liberal, young and cosmopolitan voters generally don’t like him, but their attempts at dissent have been quashed by increasingly totalitarian moves against secular free speech.
On the other side is the Turkish military, which occupies a unique position most closely comparable to that of the military in Egypt. The Turkish military is not, in theory, directly answerable to the civilian government. Instead, it sees itself as the institution responsible for protecting Kemalism, the founding ideology of the Turkish state. Kemalism is explicitly secular and friendly to the West, with a respect for religious pluralism, equality for women and similar constitutionally liberal notions.
It just so happens that, as in Egypt, the interests of constitutional liberalism and those of electoral democracy are at odds. Fareed Zakaria wrote at length about this phenomenon in his book The Future of Freedom, noting that constitutional liberalism (rule of law, protection of minority rights, etc.) is a prerequisite for the sort of complex and open democratic societies valued by the West. Absent constitutional liberalism, democracy descends to pure majoritarianism, often with disastrous consequences–especially when democratic elections bring to power ruthless dictators from the political extremes. The fact that Turkey has seen several military coups just in the last 50 years is one of the reasons it remains a mostly secular state and an open society.
That said, a military coup against a democratically elected leader remains a disastrous event. It’s difficult to claim to be protecting constitutional law and a free and open society if you are subverting the purported will of the people. It would be one thing if Erdogan had proclaimed himself dictator for life, but he has not done so. The proper course of action would be for the military to ensure the proper and orderly running of elections, and to facilitate the mobilization of the younger, more liberal and cosmopolitan base necessary to oust Erdogan at the next presidential vote. Erdogan has been ruthless against his political opposition, but he has not eliminated it as a force–and a military with the power to take over parliament should in theory have the power to prevent the oppression of legitimate democratic dissent.
Moreover, it’s not as if previous military coups have been bloodless and free of oppression. The 1971 coup, for instance, was followed by a military-instigated reign of terror that slaughtered hundreds, including many progressive reformers. Given the high death toll of the current coup, as well as the apparent factional split within the Turkish military itself, it seems unlikely that a successful coup would be any more of a tidy affair today than it was decades ago.
Now, with the apparent failure of the faction of the military that attempted the coup, it seems likely that Erdogan will further consolidate his power, using the event to arrogate unilateral executive authority to himself, alter the constitution and purge the military of all opposition forces. If that happens, Turkey is likely to lose the secular openness that made it special among Muslim-majority Middle Eastern states. That’s bad for the Turkish people, bad for the Kurds, bad for regional stability and bad for Islam itself.
The best-case scenario would be that Erdogan comes out of this situation weakened and ready to be toppled in the next democratic election. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the Turkish people will be so lucky.