Erdogan will reach for greater power after coup's failure
An army intervention that was always going to fail has opened the way for a widespread purge, writes Aengus Collins
Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30
It was apparent from shortly after the start of the attempted July 15 coup in Turkey that it would fail.
Turkey's democratic culture is shallow, but it is nevertheless resilient. The country has lived through numerous coups before and there is almost no appetite for a return to those times.
As elements of the army moved onto the street and sought to take key installations, the absence of even tacit support in any segment of society was striking.
Turkey's divisive but politically unrivalled president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is despised by a sizeable minority of Turks. However, only a very small number would see the suspension of civilian rule as a price worth paying for removing him from office. Similarly, many of Turkey's opposition politicians despair at the quasi one-party state that Turkey is becoming under Mr Erdogan's crudely majoritarian leadership, but they all still spoke out against the attempted coup on Friday night.
It is difficult to understand what those undertaking the coup hoped might happen in the absence of any sign of public or political support for military intervention, let alone any demands for such intervention. To whom were they hoping to transfer power if they had managed to wrest it from Mr Erdogan?
One plausible theory is that they had no long-term plan but moved in any case ahead of a rumoured August purge of government opponents from the military.
There have been multiple previous coups in Turkey. There were three armed interventions beteen 1960 and 1980 and a so-called "postmodern coup" in 1997. These took place at a time when a sufficient body of public and elite opinion accepted that Turkey's political institutions were fragile enough to justify reliance on the army as a last line of defence against a breakdown of social or constitutional order.
That thinking no longer prevails. If anything, coups are now seen by a majority of the electorate as the epitome of disorder. In part this reflects Mr Erdogan's remarkable success at framing Turkey's 21st-century political narrative to suit his self-interest. He presents his political career as a series of battles in which he has successfully defended majority rule against individuals, groups and institutions he claims have sought to usurp it.
The coup plotters seem to have spectacularly failed to grasp this political dynamic on Friday. As a result, they were doomed to be cast as anti-democratic traitors around whom no one would rally. Moreover, some of the symbolism of their actions was perverse. For example, they bombed the parliament building in Ankara in the name of an intervention ostensibly motivated by concerns about the erosion of Turkey's democratic institutions.
If the underlying reason for the coup's failure was its lack of public and political support, there were also more operational reasons. Put bluntly, it is difficult to seize the levers of power in a modern state. A few examples will illustrate this point. First, the army wasn't unopposed; one of the defining early images on Friday night was a stand-off in Istanbul's iconic Taksim square between the army and police. Second, the coup plotters failed in their attempt to take over a key satellite station. They never controlled the airwaves and so never controlled the narrative. Instead, their initial setbacks were amplified on television and social media, creating a powerful sense that the coup's failure was just a matter of time.
Third, there was never enough fear to keep the public in their homes. On the contrary, the government successfully called people out on to the streets in a show of defiance. For a military intervention to have prevailed against that kind of public mobilisation, soldiers would have had to be willing to kill large numbers of people, which, mercifully, they were not.
Looking ahead, the key question is what the institutional and constitutional implications of the failed coup will be. The short answer is: more power for Mr Erdogan. Within hours of the coup's failure, there were thousands of arrests in the military and the judiciary. These were less shocking than they might seem; the government has been rooting out its opponents across the state for many years now. That process will continue and perhaps intensify in the wake of the attempted coup.
Mr Erdogan defends these purges as essential to the protection of Turkish democracy. The reality is that the process is destroying an already weak system of checks and balances, eroding Turkey's long-term political and institutional capacity.
Nowhere is the absence of checks and balances more stark than in the office of the presidency as it has evolved under Mr Erdogan. Constitutionally, it is a largely ceremonial position, but since his election in 2014 Mr Erdogan has ruled as if Turkey were a presidential rather than a parliamentary democracy. He craves a new constitution to formalise and extend his de facto powers, but in two parliamentary elections since he became president he has failed to secure the super-majority that is needed to initiate a constitutional reform process.
That could now change. Nationalist feeling is running high and Mr Erdogan is already claiming that his years of warnings about the threats of coups have been borne out.
Some of his opponents' hostility towards him is likely to be tempered by the fact that his elected administration has been so directly challenged by the army. He may well calculate that this is a perfect time to push through his plans for an executive presidency.
Had the coup attempt lasted longer or reached further into the state, he might have simply suspended the constitutional order and unilaterally claimed executive powers.
But that is an unlilkely scenario. More plausible is the idea that Mr Erdogan might trigger a snap general election and have his Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaign on a platform of democracy and national unity. In the wake of what has just happened, there is a high likelihood that he would achieve his super-majority, triggering a constitutional overhaul that would confirm his dominant role in Turkey for many years ahead.
Aengus Collins is Chief EU Analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. He was based in Istanbul from 2007 to 2011