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July 19, 2016

Reading the Turkish coup


July 19, 2016

Islamabad diary

This was a coup attempt by a section of the army – we don’t as yet know the strength of the units or formations involved – and some elements of the air force. And it was, from all the evidence, an exercise in haste, and singularly ill-planned at that, with no attempt to seize the leadership, which is the starting point of all successful coups… as we in Pakistan with our long history of coups should know all too well.

Fail to catch the leadership and you are setting yourself up for trouble. The Turkish president – or, more appropriately, Turkish strongman – showed great courage and presence of mind but he was able to rally the nation, or his supporters, because he was a free man. It would have been different if the conspirators had been able to lay hold of him.

Mikhail Gorbachev – universally detested in his country for being responsible for its breakup – had lost his grip on power by 1991. But a coup attempt against him in August of that year miserably failed because the coup-makers – powerful figures in the KGB and the army – lacked decisiveness.

Boris Yeltsin who was to prove no better than a clown when he succeeded Gorbachev and became President of the Russian Federation, mounted a tank and harangued the crowds. Crack tank divisions of the Soviet army had rolled into Moscow but the people defied them, just as citizens stood in front of the tanks in Istanbul.

Musharraf’s coup in October 1999 was not a smooth affair to begin with. A detachment from 111 Brigade headed by a major had taken over Pakistan Television. But Nawaz Sharif’s military secretary, Brig Javed Iqbal, leading a detachment of police commandos retook control of the station after disarming the previous contingent. The issue was finally settled when reinforcements from 111 Brigade scaled the main gate and entered the station. Luckily no shots were fired. (The seizure of the gate is the most remembered image of that coup.)

But the army had made its plans and when word came out that Nawaz Sharif had appointed the ISI head, Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt, as new army chief those were put into effect, the chief of the general staff, Lt Gen Aziz and commander 10 corps, Lt Gen Mehmood, directing the operation. Gen Musharraf was still up in the air on board the aircraft which was bringing him from Colombo. Had there been the slightest wavering on the part of Aziz and Mehmood – had they not moved quickly – anything could have happened.

Decisiveness is the key in such situations. The attempt against Gorbachev was made because the conspirators were of the opinion that Gorbachev through his misguided policies was out to destroy the Soviet Union. But because the conspirators weren’t tough or decisive enough they failed. And their failure hastened the very breakup they were seeking to prevent.

Compare this with the attitude of the Chinese leadership under Deng Xiaoping when the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests occurred. The choice lay between letting anarchy spread in the name of democracy and crushing the demonstrators. It was an agonising choice but the leadership, all veterans of the Long March, chose ruthlessness over vacillation.

Tanks were ordered in and what followed was a massacre. But the spreading anarchy that was threatening the rule of the Communist Party was crushed. Callous as it may sound, what China is today would not have happened if the Tiananmen protests had been allowed to go ahead. There was a real danger that something similar to what occurred subsequently in the Soviet Union would have happened earlier in China.

No such issues hung in the balance in the Turkish affair we have just seen. Erdogan has his critics and he can be faulted on many counts. He has shown an authoritarian streak, muzzling the media and being intolerant of criticism. In foreign policy he has made bad decisions, especially with regard to Syria where his opposition to Bashar al-Assad helped the emergence and rise of Daesh. But there is also no denying his achievements. He is a strong and popular leader under whose stewardship the Turkish economy has grown and people have tasted the fruits of this development. When he rallied the nation he had the moral authority and standing to do so.

And he did not hesitate. Instead of hiding somewhere else he flew straight to Istanbul and was soon among the defiant crowds. This is leadership and at the most decisive moment he showed it.

Events in Turkey had a particular resonance for Pakistan because this country too is in the midst of a simmering political crisis. There is nothing much in the open and nothing much that anyone can put a finger to, but the prevailing atmosphere is full of rumour and conspiratorial talk with much of it hinging on the likelihood of the army making some kind of a move. Small wonder, everywhere you go the question is asked, what is afoot?

So when the coup attempt occurred in Turkey and it soon became clear that people had come out and the attempt had been crushed, it was but natural for Pakistanis, and for much of the commentariat, to make comparisons and draw analogies with Pakistan.

The ruling party especially went into euphoric mode saying that democracy and the people’s will had triumphed. From the manner of the triumphalism on display one could be forgiven for inferring that as ministers and others spoke of Turkey what they had in mind was their own country. The message being conveyed was that if the people’s will had triumphed in Turkey it would triumph also in Pakistan.

The ruling party is entitled to draw what conclusions it likes from the Turkish affair. We all take comfort from what suits us. But it would be making a mistake if it thinks that the triumph of Turkish democracy can take attention away from the Panama leaks or from the challenge the ruling party faces on this and other counts. These things are not going away. And the opposition parties while still not clear about how they go about this business – methods and tactics – are getting ready for some kind of agitation.

It is tempting to dream that in a similar emergency our prime minister would be able to take to social media and, in the manner of Erdogan, rally the Pakistani nation. But several questions arise. Does he have the same moral authority? If Turkish democracy has delivered economic progress and more spending on social welfare, what precisely – apart from words – has Pakistani democracy delivered?

People around Erdogan have been accused of corruption. But there is nothing like the offshore accounts and London properties relating to our leaders which taint the person of the Turkish president.

And why talk of coups at all? Is the army planning anything of the sort? What ground is there for these suspicions? The charges against the prime minister and his immediate family relate broadly to the field of corruption – offshore accounts and money put in them through unexplained means. It is not the army which has manufactured these charges. They have come out into the open because of the Panama leaks.

Any analogy with the Turkish coup is not of much help in these circumstances.

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