The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The coup attempt is bad news for Turkey’s democracy

People gather outside the Turkish parliament durign an extraordinary session in Ankara on July 16, following a failed coup attempt. (Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Though we do not yet know who was behind the Turkish coup plot to overthrow the Justice and Development (AK) Party government and the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one thing is for certain: after this attempt, Turkey will be less free and less democratic. If the military had won, then Turkey would have become an oppressive country run by generals. And if Erdogan wins, and this looks the likely outcome, Turkey will still become more oppressive.

Since coming to power in 2003, Erdogan has run the country with an increasingly authoritarian grip, cracking down on dissent as well as freedoms of expression, assembly, association and media. Initially a reformist seeking European Union accession, after winning electoral victories in 2007 and 2011 on a platform of economic good governance, Erdogan has turned conservative and authoritarian.

If part of Erdogan’s electoral success has been through positive economic performance, his other, more nefarious strategy has been demonizing groups that are unlikely to vote for him. Erdogan achieves electoral victories through violent crackdowns on such demographic blocs as Gezi Park protesters, leftists and liberals, secularists, social democrats, liberal Alevi Muslims and Kurds.

Erdogan has built a cult of personality as a kind of authoritarian underdog, portraying himself as a victim who is forced to crack down on those conspiring to undermine his authority.

On this basis, he has successfully targeted and politically brutalized opposition groups, which collectively make up nearly half of the country’s population and are now unified in their hatred of their president. The other half of the country — generally the conservative and Islamist segments — adores Erdogan. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, the AK Party won 49.5 percent of the votes.

In 2008, Erdogan launched the now-infamous Ergenekon case against the secularist military, alleging that the army planned to carry out an anti-government coup. In the ensuing witch-hunt, a quarter of the country's admirals and generals were jailed. But the Ergenekon case also targeted the government's secularist opponents, media and civil society, including scholars and journalists. Hundreds ended up in jail.

The prosecutors never produced a full and convincing account of the coup plot, and after the military's top brass resigned en masse in 2011, bowing to Erdogan's power, the country's higher courts started throwing out the indictments soon after. Still, the Ergenekon case has permeated Turkish politics, producing the idea that opposing Erdogan equaled plotting coups.

Now, following the coup plot against Erdogan, this theory has legs. Opposing Erdogan really does mean plotting a coup. In the eyes of the Turkish president and his supporters, conspiracies to overthrow him are more real than ever.

This is bad news for Turkey’s democracy. Expect Erdogan to go after coup plotters, a legitimate move, but also to crack down on all dissent and opposition. Erdogan’s supporters will accept oppression as the only way to prevent future coups, while his opponents will find it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to oppose him democratically. Some will choose to become violent, moving toward radical groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and similar unholy outfits.

Equally alarming for the country’s stability is that the coup attempt involved only part of the military, indicating serious rifts in an organization that, through earlier coups, bitter counterinsurgency and the Ergenekon tragedy, maintained solidarity. In yet another blow to the cohesion of the state and society, this event will erode governmental and public support for what was once Turkey’s most trusted and united institution.

The coup attempt will also deepen Turkey’s societal fault lines. The failed coup punctuates a further shift toward the 1970s: dark years during which the country suffered through a near-civil war between right- and left-wing militant groups and security forces that killed thousands of people.

Unless Erdogan emerges from the current episode as a uniter, not a divider — which I find unlikely — a similar period of unrest and political violence awaits Turkey. The key test will be whether Erdogan presses ahead with his previously frustrated plans to cobble together a parliamentary majority in order to amend Turkey’s constitution and consolidate the power of both the executive and legislative branches in his hands, and also become AK Party chair.

The looming cost will be to further divide Turkey, a country that in just the past six months has been hit hard by 11 PKK and Islamic State terrorist attacks, and now a terrible coup plot. A country torn between Erdogan supporters and opponents is vulnerable to further violence. Islamic State attacks will only make things worse.

Erdogan brought Turkish democracy to the brink of disaster before the coup; the officers who launched the coup pushed Turkish democracy into the abyss. It will take leaders Turkey currently does not have to rescue it.