Last Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan avoided being ousted in an attempted coup d’etat. The attempt shocked most regional experts and coup researchers, though not for the reasons you might expect. Coups against democracies are actually not uncommon. What made this coup so surprising was the specific context in which it occurred.
Most recent coups have targeted democracies
Had the coup attempt been successful, Turkey would have joined more than a dozen democracies that have witnessed leadership change by coup since 2000. Established and transitional democracies that have fallen to coups over the last decade include countries as diverse as Egypt (2013), Thailand (2014), Honduras (2009) and Fiji (2006). Nearly two-thirds of the world leaders removed by coups since 2000 were leaders of democratic countries.
Graph 1 shows that while the number of coup attempts has dropped since the Cold War, this decline has been caused by the sharp decrease in coup activity in non-democratic countries. The American think tank Freedom House, best known for producing its annual Freedom in the World report, recently concluded that the world’s overall level of democracy has dropped for a record 10th straight year. Coups among democracies are a chief reason for this troubling trend. What makes the coup attempt in Turkey so unusual is how it failed to meet a few specific conditions that usually prompt coups against democracies.
The timing was unlike that in most coups in democracies
One of these conditions is an upcoming or recent election for the country’s highest office. Coups often happen when military elites anticipate a worrisome election result or disapprove of an incumbent’s efforts to tamper with an upcoming election — even in dictatorships.
Graph 2 illustrates that about half of the coups attempted against democracies in the last 10 years occurred within six months of the nearest election. Turkey’s coup attempt was further from the nearest presidential election — August of 2014 — than all but two of the 16 coups against democracies during this period. This is potentially one reason the public did not support the coup attempt. Erdogan has been in power as either president or prime minister since 2003, and the 2019 election is too far off to create any concern or sense of urgency. This common catalyst for coups against democracies was missing.
Erdogan was power-hungry but not massively unpopular
What President Erdogan shares with other targeted democratic leaders is a clear desire to consolidate power and erode his country’s checks on executive authority. Since he has been in office, Erdogan has increased the power of the president at the expense of the prime minister and the legislature. In 2007, Erdogan, then the prime minister, persuaded voters to approve a referendum measure allowing direct presidential elections. Until that point, Turkey’s president had been appointed by the legislature and could not compete for the popular vote. This transition to a strong presidential system advanced again in May when Erdogan pressured the country’s prime minister to resign.
However, these kinds of reforms typically destabilize democracies only when leaders are already very unpopular. Egypt had seen mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi before his removal. Just prior to its failed 2015 coup, Burundi was inching toward a renewed civil war as President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a controversial third term in defiance of the constitution. After trying for a similar term extension, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was removed in 2009, but only after repeated protests by the judiciary, civilians and even the armed forces. Protesters literally asked for a coup before the Thai military’s 2014 seizure of power.
To the contrary, Erdogan’s hawkish stances toward foreign policy and domestic insurgents have arguably made him more popular than ever. His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) scored a conclusive win in November’s snap parliamentary elections. Though his administration has become increasingly repressive, it has managed to do so while maintaining strong public support. Erdogan does not resemble the highly unpopular leaders typically challenged in coup attempts against democracies.
Turkey’s coup attempt was unusual and widely unexpected, but not because Erdogan is the elected leader of an established democracy. What is exceptional about this coup attempt is the context. Recent history suggests that coup attempts in democracies are more likely than not to succeed. In Turkey, the coup plotters did not wait for a contentious election or a wave of popular discontent. Perhaps more patient and strategic organizers would have fared better.
Curtis Bell is a research associate for the One Earth Future Foundation.
Jonathan Powell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.