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With Erdogan or the Army, Turkish Democracy Was Doomed the Moment Tanks Hit the Streets

July 19, 2016
Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan lift up his portrait as they celebrate with flags in Ankara, Turkey. TUMAY BERKIN / REUTERS
Supporters of Tukish President Tayyip Erdogan lift up his portrait as they celebrate with flags in Ankara, Turkey. TUMAY BERKIN / REUTERS

“Most military coups are done in the name of democracy against democracy.”

These words spoken by the late Edward Galeano very fittingly encapsulate the recent coup attempt in Turkey.

General Akin Ozturk and his fellow army commanders that led the coup undoubtedly believed they were rescuing Turkey from President Erdogan’s increasingly tight grip over a once-secular Turkey. Throughout his 14-year reign, Erdogan has consistently decreased the Turkish army’s influence over Turkish politics. Even more so, his attempts to rewrite the country’s constitution to give himself more opportunities to further consolidate power definitely played a role in the generals’ attempt to overthrow him.

On July 15, Turkey was faced with two possible scenarios: One was allowing for the coup to succeed and ushering Turkey into a period of military rule with false promises of transitioning to democracy. The second – which was the situation that ultimately materialized – was Erdogan thwarting the coup attempt and further tightening his grip over Turkey while feigning an image as the beacon and savior of democracy.

The fate of Turkish democracy was doomed the night the coup was even attempted, regardless of the outcome.

Had the coup succeeded, Turkey would have been thrown into military rule. Although with a secular agenda, the army would be unlikely to fully restore democratic institutions under the ruse of protecting the nation at a time of crisis.

These were the excuses used by Idi Amin, Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Franciso Franco – just a few of the ruthless dictators to gain powers from their countries’ respective coups d’état.

History teaches us that military personnel are not characterized by an eagerness to listen to opposition, nor are they likely to create a public space that allows for opposition to even exist. The attempted airstrikes on the parliament in Ankara and military helicopters consciously firing at and killing protesters on the night of the attempted coup made this mentality evident. If this was the scene before the generals even took control, it is easy to paint an image of how they would rule Turkey, particularly if they were to come to power by overthrowing a democratically elected government, which in and of itself is not an entirely democratic move.

Generals conduct coups when the balance of power is not in their favor and ever since Erdogan gained power, the armed forces have become increasingly marginalized. Had the coup succeeded and the army conspirators gained power, it is unlikely they would have ever willingly relinquished it.

With regards to international opposition, it is unlikely that there would have been any form of foreign intervention – like the 2013 coup in Egypt. There would certainly be the usual onslaught of international condemnation and pseudo opposition but neither would ever materialize into real actions.

From a realist perspective, the majority of the West is only actually concerned by how the coup would affect them, or more specifically how the incoming military regime would handle the ISIS threat. If the generals are open to cooperation with the West in handling the situation in Syria, it is unlikely there would be any form of sanctions or intervention within Turkey by the Security Council or NATO.

Let us now walk away from hypotheticals and address the real issue at hand: How will Erdogan’s policy change now that the coup has been thwarted?

Early signs indicate that the Turkish president has not changed his policies but rather made them more blatant. In the days following the failed coup, Erdogan arrested over 6,000 people, including soldiers, military personnel and judges. Many have claimed that they will be tried collectively and given unified sentences that are unlikely to be entirely legal.

It is important to realize that Erdogan was never the democratic leader he so often claims to be. While he is indeed hugely responsible for the economic reform Turkey has gone through, his growing desire to make himself the center figure of Turkish politics has always been there and will most likely become even worse.

Erdogan is a president who has survived a military coup, and not many leaders can boast of such an achievement. The failure of the coup is not only a testament to his strength and influence, but it is a testament to how this strength will only increase. This means that democracy will undoubtedly suffer.

Although almost all opposition in Turkey rejected the coup, it was mainly because they knew there was no possible chance that a military regime could possibly be better for them than Erdogan. It was a “lesser of two evils” decision, so to speak, influenced by pragmatism rather than support for Erdogan’s government.

Yet, it is unlikely that Erdogan will change his policies towards the opposition; he is actually far more likely to make them worse. Erdogan has already begun fueling the blame game discourse and highlighting the importance of stability, and he will continue to do so. Any attempts made by opposition to criticize the president will most likely be met with such discourse that is supported by the majority of the Turkish population.

A country with an ailing, weakened opposition is unlikely to be able to face the even more pompous Erdogan. If they had trouble contesting Erdogan before, it seems impossible now.

Turkey has often been described as one of the very few democracies in the region. While that is certainly a justified statement to make, Erdogan has systematically made it harder for it to be supported. Turkey is much more likely to go down the path of solidifying itself as a pseudo democracy with Erdogan heavily centered around its structure.

However, the absence of Erdogan will never bring forth actual representative democracy, as it is not a term synonymous with military regimes.

At the end of the day, democracy is the one true casualty of the attempted coup d’état. It became that way the moment military helicopters flew over the streets of Ankara and Istanbul.

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