Welcome to the Turkish Winter: The Great Purge is Just Beginning
On July 15th, 2016, Turkey witnessed its first “real” coup attempt in more than 35 years. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) stood their ground and called their supporters to the streets. AKP’s supporters responded and hit the streets in the thousands, and some literally faced off coup plotters, even their tanks. In the meantime, opposition parties and their supporters openly condemned the coup attempt, leaving the plotters with little air to breathe.
The plot eventually failed in a matter of hours, leaving behind almost 200 dead and thousands more wounded. Erdogan responded with a massive purge that has so far left around 2745 judges and 3000 officers (including more than 40 generals/admirals) detained. They are all blamed for aligning with or being members of what the Turkish establishment refers to as FETO, or the Fethullah Terrorist Organization, which refers to the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. This “great purge” will likely continue to spread outside the military and judiciary into the bureaucracy, academia, the press, and beyond. There will also be a witch hunt on social media. The Turkish National Police have asked citizens to notify them of social media accounts that might be deemed as coup-friendly to its cyber division. The great purge is just beginning.
Still unclear are the details about the plotters’ identities and their plans, not to mention how the coup attempt actually played out. There is literally too much noise — misinformation and Turkey’s favorite pastime, conspiracy theories — to comment on any further specifics. However, it is time to think about the big picture and what the coup attempt and its consequences imply for the future of Turkey.
Put bluntly, we have just entered a new phase in the ever-dramatic and hardly predictable story of Turkish democracy, a chapter that could easily be called the “Turkish Winter.” The coup attempt and Erdogan’s reactions to it will be the key drivers of this phase, but they are merely the symptoms of the real disease that troubles Turkey. The ever-struggling Turkish democracy is dying a slow and painful death, and no single political actor has the will, power, and the right set of incentives to prevent this decay. The road ahead is stark: either an absolute presidency that will not only further ossify but also institutionalize Erdogan’s one-man status, or civil strife that will either take the country down the road of Syria or lead to yet another coup attempt.
I wrote about this phase, “Turkish Winter,” for the first time three years ago amid the Gezi Park protests and later here on War on the Rocks last September. Back then, my predictions appeared to many as mere hyperbolic and dystopian nonsense to some. In the wake of the failed coup attempt, the claim that Turkish democracy is on its deathbed is no longer hyperbole, but rather an obvious statement. Dystopia has become how many Turks have come to define the state of Turkish politics. At the time, I was trying to warn spectators about the coming of a political firestorm (or ice age, if I am to stick to the winter terminology). The coup attempt and its immediate aftermath suggest in no uncertain terms that we have entered a new phase in Turkish politics. Welcome to the Turkish Winter. And it is only beginning.
Two questions are important for understanding this new phase: How did we get there and what should we expect in this new Turkey?
The story of how we got here has two sides. First, intense polarization and collective insanity have driven Turkey off the cliff into a political abyss no individual actor really wanted in the first place. Second, certain institutional dynamics made it possible for mid-ranking officers to break the chain of command and launch a coup attempt. Since I have already written about sides of the story for WOTR already, even predicting a coup attempt as early as 2013, I will not rehearse my analyses here again. Instead, I will focus on the second question: What should we expect in this new Turkey?
Prepare for four major dynamics. The first and most obvious involves the purges — lots of them, and of Turks from every walk of life. The thousands of officers and judges already detained are just the beginning. The “great purge,” as historians might call it, will leave no stone unturned. Erdogan will use the “followers of Fethullah Gulen” narrative to re-make the military, judiciary, higher education, bureaucracy, media, and even social media in his own image.
In doing so, Erdogan will be motivated by both fear and opportunity. Despite the surprisingly amateurish performance of the coup plotters, the failure of the coup plot was hardly preordained, but instead resulted from two specific factors. First, despite their hatred of Erdogan, his opponents did not support the coup attempt. Second, surprising many spectators, thousands of Erdogan’s supporters followed his calling to take to the streets, sometimes literally sacrificing their lives to prevent the coup from happening. Without these two developments, the coup attempt could have easily tilted the other way. Erdogan must know how close he came to being ousted, and this drives his fear. It is safe to assume that Erdogan still does not know how far the plotters reached, so he retains incentives to minimize any and every risk that could feed another coup attempt.
The element of opportunity also plays a big role in Erdogan’s coming great purge. He is now equipped with the moral high ground (which he lacked for many years) and the perfect excuse to re-shuffle the state apparatus, the media, and even the business world. In one of his earlier statements, Erdogan admitted that the coup attempt was “a boon from Allah” that would help Turkey purify its armed forces from diseases. It would be naïve to think that purification will stop with the military. Erdogan will “weaponize” the coup attempt for political and social engineering.
It is neither impossible nor highly likely that the coup attempt was associated with Fethullah Gulen, or that thousands of officers and judges — who largely come from Turkey’s most secular segments — were all pushing for a coup under the sway of a religious cleric. Regardless, this will not stop Erdogan from pushing all those he deems either as threat or undesirable under the FETO bus.
In fact, an increasing salience of the “FETO” emphasis will be the second dynamic that we should expect in the Turkish Winter. The obvious question, of course, involves the extent of Gulen’s involvement in the coup attempt. How closely involved was he, if at all? Much uncertainty remains surrounding the question, and the link between Gulen and the attempt is not straightforward.
For one, Gulen allegedly began to infiltrate the armed forces only in the last decade thanks to his one-time alliance with Erdogan. This form of infiltration entails placing Gulenist sleeper agents into organizations from very early on, rather than the conversion of mature officers. Simply put, it is not clear how the high-ranking officers associated with the coup attempt (who are in their 50s or older) could be Gulen’s sleeper agents.
Furthermore, the Gulenist movement is usually linked to the purge of military officers in the controversial trials of Ergenekon and Balyoz of the past years. One can even claim that the some of the so-called secularists, which would include most members of the military, hate Gulen more than they hate Erdogan. One thing is certain: demonization and criminalization of Gulen and his followers in domestic politics and foreign policy discourses will escalate and become one of the key aspects of Erdogan’s Turkey.
Of course, there is the relevant question: What does Erdogan seek to accomplish by pushing hard for Gulen’s extradition from the United States? Once partners, Erdogan now thinks of Gulen as a prime threat to his rule. In Erdogan’s best-case scenario, he can use the coup attempt to bring pressure on the United States to extradite Gulen. At minimum, he would put Gulen in the spotlight after years of remaining rather invisible in U.S. policy circles and media. Considering that Erdogan’s charges led Foreign Policy to portray Gulen as a “shadowy cleric,” it seems like Erdogan has already accomplished this goal.
The third dynamic to expect in the new Turkey will be Erdogan’s push for what can be referred to as “absolute presidency,” akin to the absolute monarchies of the age of Louis XIV. While Erdogan remains president, the present Turkish constitution grants very limited powers to the office of the president. Erdogan has been bending the constitution ever since he assumed office, but what he really wants is a constitutional change that would grant him his one wish: a presidency with absolute executive powers and no checks and balances from the judiciary.
Over the past couple of years, Erdogan struggled to get his wish come up short of securing the constitutional change, even as he dominated the political arena. The coup attempt has given him the perfect opportunity. He will most certainly take it. In the years (or months) leading up to this constitutional change, Erdogan will likely pursue a “hot-cold” approach, as he usually does. At times, he will appear as the “good cop,” presenting himself as an accommodating and flexible leader to attract supporters and deflate criticism. Alternately, he will don the banner of the “bad cop,” using the coup attempt to legitimize his increasingly patronizing attitude.
Erdogan is a master of art of political warfare and Turkey’s own game of thrones, the intricacy of which would probably make the associated TV show look like Telettubies. He will push and pull, use carrots or sticks, and do whatever it takes to start building his absolute presidency. Once he accomplishes this goal, Turkey will truly enter an era of one-man regime, which would make the last couple of years look relatively democratic and liberal in hindsight.
The fourth dynamic that we will observe in the new Turkey is not new, but will likely escalate in intensity. Erdogan’s rising power and increasing intolerance will further polarize the country between not only Turks and Kurds, but also between secularists and Islamists. When Erdogan asked his followers to hit the streets, mosques across the country also started to broadcast non-stop selah prayers normally associated with funerals. Some of the mosques even announced that “[this] is jihad, and [you] should hit the streets in the name of Allah.”
The anti-coup demonstrations also witnessed a mix of democratic and religious references. Sometimes in the presence of religion-fueled slogans, the anti-coup crowds occasionally ended up killing or brutalizing surrendered conscripts, some of whom are reported to be unaware of the true nature of their undertaking. The secular segments of the society opposed the coup attempt, but if the anti-coup rhetoric starts to assume a more religious and anti-secular tone, the political polarization in the country may assume a more violent tone. This is especially worrisome considering that Erdogan’s chief adviser recently suggested that the present bans on “right to own and bear arms” should be relaxed to allow civilians to arm themselves in case of another coup attempt.
Developments so far suggest that Erdogan, when pressed, may rely even further on fueling the Islamist-secular divide. This puts Erdogan at a decisive advantage in terms of electoral votes and popular “street” support, and he could portray secular Turks as enemies of the state, nation, religion, Erdogan himself, or a combination of these. If he goes down that road further, the country will continue ripping itself apart, from the inside. As I wrote earlier:
[S]uch a landscape will most likely resemble a perfect storm that brings together two dark episodes in Turkish political history: the political polarization of 1970s (this time no longer between left-wing and right-wing groups, but between the seculars and conservatives) and the ethnic tensions of 1990s (this time no longer limited to PKK-state clashes in the southeast, but spread across the entire country).
So, is it all doom and gloom for Turkey? Alternatively, what can be done to turn things around and escape this coming political winter? As things stand, there is little to be done but watch the slow-motion train accident that Turkish politics has become. In the end, all depends on Erdogan’s next move.
Just like Gezi Park protests of 2013 might have, the coup attempt could serve as a wake-up call for Erdogan, who is now the only person with sufficient power to turn things around in Turkey. Put simply, he can either use this “boon from Allah” to consolidate his power or to address the deep schisms ripping the country apart from the inside. He missed the Gezi Park train and instead strove for more power, which further strained the country’s increasingly fragile political system. We have little reason to be optimistic this time around.
Of course, we can hope. In the end, this is the most we can do when dealing with a one-man regime.
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.