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July 19, 2016

Democracy and the coup


July 19, 2016

Our media and politicians are waxing eloquent about how the Turkish people – the ‘awam’ – have saved and strengthened democracy. The assumption is flawed on two counts: a) that democracy has been saved, and b) that people-power alone was enough to challenge the poorly planned and badly coordinated military coup.

President Erdogan has ushered in commendable economic growth and this along with his Islamist credentials have built a loyal, conservative following. However, despite his popularity, he is a controversial figure. True, his supporters are many but then there is the other half of the Turkish society that is highly uncomfortable with what it perceives as his authoritarian tendencies.

Erdogan’s quest for replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one is seen as a clear manifestation of his need for personal empowerment through an authoritarian constitutional regime.

One is a witness to the plight of those working in the universities and banks run by the Hizmat Foundation of Fetullah Gulen. They have been facing arbitrary arrests and detentions with no recourse to justice. The presence of the police on campus is not an uncommon sight.

Similarly, uncooperative media persons have been facing arrests, prison terms and forced closures of their businesses for ostensibly undermining state security. The Gullenists maintain that Gulen’s stand against governmental corruption involving some close relatives of the president is what invited Erdogan’s wrath against his former close friend and ardent supporter.

Turkish police forces brutally suppressed demonstrations in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and in other cities in June 2013. Since then the president has attacked social media, particularly Twitter which is popular among young middle-class Turks, as harmful for Turkey. Subsequently, hundreds of Turks have been prosecuted for allegedly offensive tweets mocking the president. Yet, ironically, on Friday he himself resorted to social media to urge his supporters to fight the coup plotters in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul.

Erdogan has been trying to purge dissenting judges from the top courts for some time; in the wake of the failed coup he has achieved this with a single stroke of the pen. The failed amateurish coup – seen by many in the opposing camp as staged– is likely to make it easier for Erdogan to make the constitutional changes needed for replacing the current parliamentary governance model.

Moreover, it will provide the opportunity to further purge the military. There is no denying the fact that in a democratic setup the military must be under civilian control. However, it is also important to remember that a pliant military leadership that is reluctant to offer candid input in the formulation of strategic policies may fail to fulfil its fundamental role.

Genuine democracy is not about empowering one branch at the expense of another; it is more fundamentally about separation of powers, checks and balances and rule of law. A failed coup therefore will not automatically usher in a stronger Turkish democracy.

Secondly, the ‘awam’ did not single-handedly thwart the attempted coup. One must not take away anything from the ordinary citizens who came out in droves to challenge the coup-plotters; they were heroic and their sincere passion was moving. One must also appreciate the opposition leaders who denounced the coup. In a sign of how little apparent public support the coup plotters had all three opposition parties in parliament united against the coup. (What their reaction might have been in case the coup was successful is of course another matter.)

That said, the crucial role of the military and the national police in preventing a successful coup must also be acknowledged. Major elements of the Turkish military and Turkish Special Forces stood behind Erdogan. Gen Hulusi Akar’s (genuine or forced) refusal to back the coup was likely a key reason why it quickly unravelled.

Fighter jets took out a military helicopter involved in the rebel attack against the communication provider Turksat and launched air strikes at rebel tanks outside parliament. Without this military support for the government – and lack of support for the rebellious faction – it is difficult to imagine how unarmed protesters could have stopped the heavily armed coup plotters without excessive bloodshed leading to uncontrollable chaos.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Erdogan will use the failed coup to launch an even bigger attack on the Gulen movement. Fethullah Gulen has categorically denounced the coup. It is debatable what Gulen, whose movement has strong political, social and financial influence in Turkey, stood to gain from an ill-planned and amateurish coup attempt.

There are a number of fault-lines in Turkish society. One sincerely hopes that Erdogan will use his steadily growing power to close the gaps. The future of Turkish democracy lies in the balance. And a strong, democratic Turkey is indispensable for the Muslim world.

Coming back to our media and certain politicians’ enthusiasm for the populist sentiment in Turkey; those who are trying to find commonalities between the Turkish and Pakistani situations would do well to remember that despite his controversial policies Erdogan remains a popular leader because he has delivered on the economic front resulting in legitimate popular support.

Moreover, there are many Turks who do not support Erdogan but who are also against the military’s political dominance because they do not wish a repeat of the economic and political instability that marks Turkey’s coup-ridden past.

In Pakistan, however, despite a desire for democracy the public perception of our political elite is less than complimentary. In the unfortunate case of a similar crisis (God forbid), a call for people to lie in front of tanks may very well fall on deaf ears.

The writer is an academic, currently affiliated with Meliksah University, Turkey.

Email: [email protected]


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