The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Erdogan must resist the urge to double down on authoritarianism

An armored vehicle with portraits of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is parked outside the parliament building in Ankara on July 16. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

RECEP TAYYIP Erdogan, Turkey's arrogant and increasingly autocratic president, survived a coup attempt Friday after the nation's beleaguered democratic institutions rallied behind him. Opposition political parties that Mr. Erdogan has persecuted quickly issued statements condemning the coup. When soldiers occupied state television, private news media that the president has intimidated and censored provided him with the means to speak to the country. Social media that Mr. Erdogan has been prone to shut down broadcast video of anti-coup street rallies across the country.

Having been backed by Turkey’s democrats after a faction of the nationalist military turned on him, Mr. Erdogan ought to respond by backing away from his own drive to neuter or destroy peaceful opponents, critical media and independent judges. Sadly, few close observers of the Turkish leader expect such a reversal. On the contrary, the coup may leave a more unstable and less liberal NATO member on the border of Iraq and Syria, headed by a Putinesque strongman whose paranoia and intolerance have been redoubled.

Though the identity and motives of the military rebels remained unclear Saturday — Mr. Erdogan offered no evidence for his claim that they represented an Islamist movement with which he has feuded — their statement spoke of restoring democracy, and it would be reasonable to suppose they objected to Mr. Erdogan's concentration of power. Having first led his Justice and Development (AK) Party to an electoral victory in 2002 as a moderate, pro-Western Islamist, the president has steadily moved to the authoritarian right over the past decade, while continuing to win election victories. Turkey is a world leader in the imprisonment of journalists; once independent television channels and newspapers have been taken over by the government or Mr. Erdogan's supporters.

The regime has repeatedly purged the military, including through a mass prosecution of officers for alleged coup plotting a decade ago. Ironically, Mr. Erdogan has moved closer to the army in recent years, using it to launch a bloody assault on Kurdish militants in southeastern Turkey a year ago after a Kurdish political party helped to deprive the ruling party of its parliamentary majority. But lower-ranking officers may have objected to his maneuverings in Syria, where he appeared to tolerate the Islamic State before it staged a series of bombings inside Turkey.

Mr. Erdogan's domestic repression and erratic foreign policies — he has oscillated between courting and feuding with Israel, Russia and the Assad regime in Syria, among others — have complicated what began as a warm relationship with the Obama administration. The coup attempt may lead to further troubles. Though the Obama administration eventually offered explicit public backing for the "democratically-elected" government, a first statement by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, when the coup's outcome was uncertain, supported only "stability and peace and continuity within Turkey."

Turkey remains vital to the fight against the Islamic State: U.S. planes operating against targets in Syria and Iraq are based at Incirlik Air Base, which on Saturday remained closed and cut off from local power supplies. But the long-term U.S. interest is in a Turkey that preserves its democratic institutions and civil society. Washington must do its best to restrain any move by Mr. Erdogan to respond to the coup with another crackdown on the secular and liberal forces that came to democracy's defense.

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