Erdogan’s Last Off-Ramp: Authoritarianism, Democracy, and the Future of Turkey
There is still much uncertainty about the causes and consequences of Turkey’s failed coup attempt last week, but one thing is for sure: it will prove to be a watershed moment in Turkish politics.
It is the first time since 1963 that Turkey witnessed a coup attempt launched outside the chain of command. Accordingly, the events of July 15 came as a complete surprise to most and only a very few (including yours truly, as I first pointed out in 2013 and last September) saw a “not top-down” coup attempt coming.
In Turkey’s long history of military interventions, the recent coup attempt also marks the first time that people in the tens of thousands took to the streets and literally faced off tanks, even at the expense of their lives. In addition, it is the first time a military intervention, or a coup attempt, led to this much blood, with around 300 dead and thousands wounded. The images of rebel F-16s bombing the Parliament, tanks running over peaceful protestors, and conscripts opening fire on civilians will stain Turkish collective consciousness for decades.
While the failed coup attempt is a “first” in many dimensions, it is also the last chance President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have to prevent Turkey from sliding into a “political winter” that will be marked either by an increasingly authoritarian one-man regime or as I previously wrote here, a perfect storm that brings together two dark episodes in Turkish political history: the political polarization of 1970s and the ethnic tensions of 1990s. On the other hand, if Erdogan can actually prevent the Turkish winter, he may pave the way for a political spring, with him acting as the catalyst for Turkey’s transformation into a truly democratic and tolerant country.
Put simply, armed with the moral high ground that has so-far silenced his domestic opponents’ criticisms in the aftermath of the coup attempt, not to mention, the mass support from his newly-energized followers, Erdogan will have the power to accomplish one of the two in the months ahead: consolidate his power in absolute terms or unify the country by alleviating the multi-faceted tensions that are slowly ripping it apart.
Erdogan’s track record both as the leader of Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) and, later, president (who, according to the constitution, is supposed to be non-partisan) so far is not promising, leaving little room for optimism. As a master of political warfare and a veteran gladiator in the ever-ruthless arena of Turkish politics, Erdogan has faced and defeated many enemies in his long career, hardening his tone and methods with every challenge. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan’s actions will be driven by two motives: fear and opportunity.
Many analysts tend to play down the risk that the coup plotters posed to Erdogan’s political — not to mention, physical-survival. In truth, the rebels came very close to toppling him. Erdogan has every reason to fear the consequences of a “second wave,” which might not come soon, but could be much better planned and executed if it ever does. While some might argue that the crackdown on the military will make sure that the risk of a coup in Turkey is eliminated for good, Turkey is a land where a prudent spectator would appreciate the value of the words “never say never.” Probably more than anyone else, Erdogan most certainly understands this dynamic. The fear that Erdogan recently tasted will likely motivate him to launch a “preventive” war against his real or imagined enemies, as evidenced by the “great purge” he has already initiated not only in the military and judiciary, but all walks of life including press, academia, health, and education.
The coup attempt, on the other hand, also presented Erdogan with an unprecedented and unique opportunity. He can use this moment to consolidate his power once and for all, in two ways. The first would be to push for a constitutional change that would transform Turkey’s parliamentarian system into a presidential one, finally granting him his one true wish: an absolute presidency with strong executive powers, accompanied with weak checks and balances over them. Second, Erdogan can weaponize the coup attempt to rid the state institutions and media of the people and groups that he may consider obstacles to his political objectives.
Erdogan’s past record, when combined by the incentives borne out by the coup attempt, suggests that he will take the path to absolute presidency, with deleterious implications for Turkey’s already-ailing democracy. However, Erdogan still has a choice. He can use his newfound and unmatched power to ”solve” Turkey’s long-standing problems that existed long before his rule: the secular-Islamist schisms and the Kurdish question. If he chooses wisely and responsibly, Erdogan can convince his opponents, not to mention his followers, to work out their differences through mutual understanding and compromise.
Put differently, the coup attempt can prove to be the biggest opportunity — or a “gift from God” as Erdogan put it himself during the coup attempt — Turkey has had decades to rid itself of the “collective insanity” from which it has been suffering. However, the choice will be Erdogan’s. This is the last exit opportunity for Erdogan before he plunges into a point of no return, taking the country with him.
The logic is simple. If he decides to exploit his unprecedented popularity to achieve more power, he will deepen the schisms in the country. There will be two possible outcomes. In the first, he will succeed in establishing himself as the absolute president, leaving little room to breathe for Turkey’s secularists as well as its Kurdish minority. In the second scenario, he will try to achieve absolute power but eventually fail, which would open the gates for multidimensional strife between secularists and Islamists, the Kurds and Turks, and even Sunnis and Turkey’s Alawite minority. Under such circumstances, Turkey would be a land of chronic instability.
Coming to terms with the fact that Erdogan still has a choice to make, in turn, has two key implications for how the Western audiences perceive Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt.
The first entails grappling with Erdogan’s pragmatism. Western analysts usually see Erdogan through the eyes of intermediaries – “Turkey experts” or “insiders,” whose analyses and insights often project their own biases and political agendas. The result, especially since the Gezi park protests of 2013, is a feedback loop where the same analysts are fed (and then themselves perpetuate an image of Erdogan that is uncompromising, radical, and “static.” Upon closer inspection, Erdogan can appear uncompromising and radical at times, but he is far from static: His past record suggests that he is a pragmatist par excellence and adjusts his discourses as well policies depending on the circumstances. Producing analyses and policy advice based on the demonized (or, at least, caricaturized) interpretations of Erdogan will not only be misleading, but can also prompt Erdogan to choose more power over society-wide reconciliation.
Second, Western audiences should pay closer attention to the rift between how the coup attempt is seen in Turkey and the rest of the world. It is true that the religious references invoked during the initial anti-coup protests can be worrisome in a modern and purportedly secular democracy. , Erdogan’s religious rhetoric as well as his decision to use the mosques in the country to mobilize masses strengthen the argument that he may be pushing the country toward a more Islamist path., That Erdogan has initiated a massive purge in the aftermath of the attempt also raises questions about the extent of the government’s “targeting” and human rights violations. In fact, these questions are at the heart of debates about the coup attempt in the Western media. However, the Turkish public, in general, seems far more concerned about the coup attempt itself and the role they played in subduing it.
For one, Erdogan’s followers did not hesitate to risk their lives to stop the coup plotters and are still committed to remaining in the streets to both signal their support for the government and deter a potential “second wave.” Erdogan’s secular opponents, both political parties and individuals, also denied the coup attempt any support, holding and participating in anti-coup demonstrations across the country. In the end, it was not Erdogan alone who suppressed the coup attempt with brute force; it was the will of the people, both pro-AKP and AKP’s opponents, that denied success to the plotters.
The more Western audiences ignore or downplay this dynamic, the more they will alienate Erdogan and his followers. It is true that suppressing the coup attempt does not guarantee democracy all by itself. However, if the putschists were successful, Turkish democracy would have vanished and the progress that it has made over the last three decades would have been squandered. To flourish, Turkish democracy needs not only criticism for its shortcomings, but also encouragement for its accomplishments. On July 15, the people of Turkey said “no” to military rule for the first time, and did so in no uncertain terms. Failing to recognize what that collective response means for the future of Turkish democracy only makes it easier for Erdogan to give in to the temptation and drive past the off-ramp.
As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Surviving the coup attempt, Erdogan is now more powerful domestically than he has ever been. That leaves him with a choice: use power to achieve even more political power, or use it responsibly and arrest the decline of the Turkish democracy before it is too late.
The next episode of the great saga of Turkey’s experiment with democracy will depend entirely on Erdogan. We can only hope that he will choose responsibility over power. In the end, when one man amasses so much power, the most others can do is hope that he will do the right thing.
Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.