Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt shocked the international community. However, the coup’s failure does not mean that Turkish politics will soon return to normal. After such failed attempts to remove them from power, populist leaders such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan typically respond with heightened repression and a paranoid style of politics that bodes ill for a return to normal democratic life. Even worse, all indications suggest that post-coup Turkey will be at the more intense end of the spectrum of backlash.
Leaders who survive coup attempts often exploit the crisis to concentrate power in their own hands and it is extremely rare that they reduce repression. This is especially the case for leaders who had already been moving in an autocratic direction prior to the attempted coup. For example, in April 11, 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was removed from office for less than two days in a coup attempt. Once he re-assumed power, Chavez blamed the United States for the coup attempt, increased suppression of the press, weakened the opposition and rode the resulting popular support for years to come. After an assassination attempt on former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, his popularity soared, and he successfully cracked down on opposition factions, minimizing societal dissent. The botched coup attempt will therefore probably usher in a major tectonic shift in Turkish politics as well.
Leaders who survive plots can harness popular sympathy to their advantage, as President Erdogan has already quickly done. In the past several years, Erdogan’s popularity has been steadily declining despite successive electoral victories. But after the failed coup attempt, he has become the new hero of democracy. In a remarkable act of defiance, many Turkish citizens flocked to the streets to challenge soldiers. Likewise, all major political and civil society organizations and political parties condemned the attempted coup early on, depriving the attempt of a critical source of legitimacy. This episode illustrates a decided embrace of procedural democratic governance by all sectors of the Turkish society.
This is not a trivial point; populist leaders thrive on popular mass support. As political scientist Kurt Weyland argues, populist leaders appeal to a “heterogeneous mass of followers who feel left out” and can do this in a “direct, quasi-personal manner that bypasses established intermediary organizations.” The societal reaction to the coup attempt created such an outflow of support for Erdogan especially with his direct appeal to masses in order to mobilize them via, Facetime, text messages and calls to prayer from mosques throughout the night.
This popular rejection of the coup attempt in Turkey highlights one of the common threads of why coups fail. Coup attempts such as those in Germany in 1920, Japan in 1936 and Algeria in 1961 have all failed due to “civil resistance” and non-cooperation by the general public. As Adam Roberts once noted, especially in conscript-based militaries, vulnerability to “pressures from the civilian population and from civil institutions” for coup plotters is great.
But ironically, this popular enthusiasm for democratic governance and rejection of the military’s intervention may not prevent Turkish democracy from deteriorating further. The society’s overwhelming repudiation of the coup attempt provides Erdogan carte blanche to redesign government institutions and consolidate power on a scale largely unprecedented since Turkey’s first democratic elections in 1946. Despite some early calls for less societal polarization following the coup attempt, all signals from the Turkish government suggest renewed repression of dissent. Historically, such large-scale repressive state response to coups has been fairly common – though certainly not universal – as the cases of Kenya in 1982, Nigeria in 1990 and Venezuela in 1992 illustrate.
Increased media suppression is currently eliminating an already thin lineup of non-loyalist media outlets. The government has blocked access to several news portals that host opposition views, including Meydascope, Karsi Gazete, Gazeteport and Rotahaber. In his first address after the coup attempt, President Erdogan referred to the attempt as a “gift from God” that would allow a popularly backed purge of dissident voices in the military and beyond.
One long-standing desire of Erdogan and the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) is to introduce an executive presidency to enable Erdogan to “centralize” and “tighten his grip” on power. In part due to the pro-Kurdish HDP’s success in parliamentary elections, the AKP failed to garner the parliamentary majority to secure this constitutional change. The failed coup attempt provides a golden opportunity to recast the executive presidency as a panacea to Turkey’s many problems and to rectify civilian-military relations.
The aftermath of the failed coup attempt will probably entrench certain Turkish domestic and foreign policy trajectories for years to come. Non-loyalists within the bureaucracy will be quickly eliminated under the guise of eradicating the Gulenist “parallel state.” The judiciary and the military have been the primary targets of this cleansing effort. The morning of the coup attempt, the first order of business for the government was to dismiss, and later detain, more than 2,700 judges and prosecutors. Many of these officials are reported to be staunch secularists or Alevis – read, non-Erdogan loyalists. The aftershocks of the coup attempt continue unfolding in purges in higher education, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the ministry of education and the police force. However, these actions do not amount to Turkey’s “Iran 1979 Moment.” Erdogan’s primary concern remains the creation of a personalistic authoritarian regime, muting societal dissent.
In terms of foreign policy, the Turkish government stands to lose a valuable source of policy insight by a state agency with considerable autonomy. The Turkish military has provided a constant balancing act, often mitigating the government’s desired course of policy in Iraq, Syria and the broader region. Generals have been able to minimize the extent of adventurism in Turkish foreign policy, pushing for a line closer to broader Western strategy in the region. The absence of the military’s critical voice may change Turkey’s regional calculations and policies.
In particular, the Turkish government’s insistence on Fethullah Gulen’s extradition to Turkey on charges of terrorism carries the seeds of further strain in the already tenuous Turkish-American relations. One of the rare leverages at the Turkish government’s disposal is American use of the Incirlik Air Base. While short-term suspensions of the base’s use are unlikely to severely undermine the U.S. offensive against Islamic State forces, extended disruptions might hamper sustained efforts in Syria and Iraq.
If the United States does not grant Gulen’s extradition request, Turkey may pursue greater independence in foreign decision-making, potentially undermining U.S. regional policy. Just as Turkey continues to move away from European Union membership, it may continue to loosen U.S. ties. Improved relations with Russia and Israel in recent weeks will also probably affect the Turkish government’s calculations on this front. After 2002, Hugo Chávez was emboldened to defy the United States. Some early accusations of U.S. involvement in the coup attempt hint at a possible fallout between Turkey and the United States.
The failed coup attempt in Turkey appears to contain elements of sensationalism with a televised and social media-heavy turn of events and will certainly have its quirks along the way. Yet history and scholarly research suggest that, at its core, it seems to be following the pattern of other failed coups. While coups are typically an elite affair, popular opposition has the potential to disrupt successful plots. However, civil resistance does not engender greater democracy; instead, political leaders who survive the attempt seek widespread retribution to ensure dissent is minimized and the opposition is highly disciplined and restricted. In cases where other countries are deemed to have collaborated with coup plotters, a marked shift in foreign-policy orientation is likely to ensue.
A. Kadir Yildirim, is a research scholar at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Muslim Democratic Parties in the Middle East: Economy and Politics of Islamist Moderation,” (Indiana University Press, 2016).