As the dust settles on Turkey’s failed midnight coup, critics and supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alike are considering the consequences of Friday’s attempted takeover. Although little is known about the mystery officers who staged an attempt to overthrow the government in Ankara, the seeds of new conspiracy theories have already begun to take root.
War of words
On one side, government detractors are speculating that the attempted coup was a masterful, state-managed scheme to consolidate Erdogan’s power. On the other side, the AKP government is placing the blame for the coup attempt on perpetrators — real and imagined. The government’s list of villains ranges from bitter Erdogan rival Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who now lives in the United States, and other shadowy foreign “invaders” to supporters of Turkey’s Ataturkist secular establishment and even the U.S. government. The skeptics are painting Erdogan as a megalomaniac tyrant bent on elected dictatorship; the believers are portraying him as a savior and victim.
Theories abound, but one thing is certain: The person currently winning the war of words is Erdogan. Analysts here in the Monkey Cage and elsewhere were struck by the unity of politicians and civilians from across the ideological spectrum in opposition to the coup. Despite the opposition’s strong disapproval of Erdogan’s repressive regime, every major political party denounced the coup attempt, believing Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule to be preferable to military dictatorship or a transitional unelected government.
Democracy and coups
Some have interpreted the fact that leaders from across the political spectrum are largely united in their denunciation of Friday’s coup attempt as evidence that democracy is on track. As Oral Calıslar opined in the pro-government mouthpiece Serbestiyet, a failed coup is evidence that Turkey “has passed a test” and that “now is time for a deepening of democracy, freedom, and human rights.” In the same venue, Halil Berktay lamented that Western observers “fail to see, and accept, the crowds that rushed to defend democracy.”
Failed coups, however, rarely prove to be the type of victory for democracy and individual freedom that Erdogan and his supporters are currently claiming. Recent research on coups suggests that regime change is unlikely after a failed coup, and when it does occur, the regime that emerges is more likely to be a dictatorship than a democracy. Perhaps most worryingly for Turkey — since regime change does not appear to be in the making — most coups, successful or failed, tend to be followed by greater repression against citizens.
More than 6,000 military and judicial personnel have been detained in Turkey. Many have suggested that the purges could go further, citing a report in Bir Gün that the head of YOK, Turkey’s Council on Higher Education, is planning to convene an emergency meeting on Monday of all university rectors to discuss the steps necessary to “completely clean the academic community of this [parallel] structure (bu yapı).”
For its part, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) Executive Council Co-Presidency has released a statement diametrically opposed to the failed-coup-equals-democracy logic. “Portraying Erdogan and the fascist AKP dictatorship as if they were democratic after this coup attempt is an approach even more dangerous than the coup attempt itself,” read the KCK statement.
Although the majority of Turks may very well prefer a continuation of AKP rule to military dictatorship, the fact that such conflicting narratives of conspiracy and victimization immediately began to crystallize, even before the outcome of the putsch was known, does not bode well for Turkish democracy.
Conspiracy theories abound
During the early hours of the attempted takeover, an elaborate theory emerged suggesting the event was a “false flag” operation staged by Erdogan to tighten his grip on power. Government detractors took to social media, posting under the hashtags #TheaterNotCoup (#DarbeDeğilTiyatro), #FakeCoup (#SahteDarbe) and #ShamCoup (#ÇakmaDarbe). The staged-coup theory gained further momentum after Erdogan was broadcast referring to ongoing events as “a gift from God” that would allow the regime to “cleanse our army” of the Gulen “virus.”
Commentators also pointed to the youthful appearance of many of the captured troops allegedly behind the coup, arguing that they looked like impressionable teenage conscripts who probably thought they were on a training exercise. Gulen responded to Erdogan’s accusations by criticizing the president — adding fuel to the “false flag” conspiracy.
Casting leaders as victims
Both Erdogan and Gulen employ tropes casting themselves as current and past victims of repression, presumably to garner empathy from captivated onlookers. Erdogan highlighted his status as a democratically elected leader under attack by “parallel” (Gulenist) and secularist elements — failing, of course, to mention the 10-year-long partnership between Gulen and the AKP, which brought Turkey show trials galore.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim similarly utilized the spotlight to frame the uprising as a dichotomy between “democratic” Turkish regime forces and the “parallel terrorist organization” (referring to Gulen and his supporters). At a mass funeral for victims of the failed coup, crowds shouted “Fethullah [Gulen] will come and pay” and “We want the death penalty.”
Gulen also highlighted his victimhood as a political outsider and former political prisoner when he was interviewed during Friday’s dramatic events. After framing the coup attempt as the twisted brainchild of the Erdogan regime, Gulen spoke of his suffering: “I have been pressured and I have been imprisoned. I have been tried and faced various forms of harassment.”
A new political weapon: The Diyanet
Turkey’s self-avowed secularists also see themselves as victims — victims of a regime that is leveraging Islam, and especially the state-run presidency of religious affairs (Diyanet) and its imam/civil servants, to bolster its hold on power. Throughout the night of the failed uprising, mosques in several Turkish cities broadcast the call to prayer on repeat after Erdogan asked citizens to protest the overthrow attempt. The call was coupled with appeals for the people to protest the coup and remain steadfast in their support of the government.
Interestingly, the head of the Diyanet, Mehmet Gormez, also referenced past victimization in a rare public statement made from the Diyanet TV studio. Gormez condemned the betrayal by the Gulenist “parallel structure” and offered “praise to Allah for granting the calls to prayer that silenced the coup, after the [past] coups that have silenced calls to prayer.” In 2015, Kristin Fabbe wrote, “Problems could arise if the AKP decides — and is able — to leverage the Diyanet as a political weapon against the Gulen Movement.”
It seems that time has now come.
Research suggests that this ratcheting up of victimization rhetoric could have important attitudinal and electoral consequences. Kimberly Guiler, in a paper recently discussed at the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) annual conference, finds that voters in Turkey are more likely to feel positively toward candidates who cite experiences of political suffering in their biographies. Specifically, exposure to information about a candidate’s political imprisonment significantly improved respondents’ ideological affinity with the candidate, regardless of party affiliation. In particular, respondents who perceived themselves as political victims or who exhibited low political knowledge were more likely to vote for the previously imprisoned candidate. Respondents who received information about a previously imprisoned candidate from the religiously conservative AKP also reported higher levels of trust, feelings of closeness and likelihood to vote for the candidate. This pattern holds for voters with low trust in AKP leadership and low levels of religiosity, demonstrating that using a history of sacrifice broadens support for candidates.
Turkey’s reputation as a mainstay of stability in a rough neighborhood is crumbling. Developments in Turkey and empirical research show that emerging narratives matter immensely to people trying to make sense of violence and political uncertainty. The conflicting narratives of victimization and conspiracy that have flooded the media landscape in Turkey over the past few days, while hardly new, suggest a nation that could be further divided, rather than united, by recent events.
Kristin Fabbe is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Kimberly Guiler is a PhD candidate in government at the University of Texas at Austin.