In one poorly organised show of lukewarm force, Turkey’s failed coup plotters have provided President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the catalyst for major political change.
For Erdogan, it vindicates years of conspiratorial rhetoric around the ‘deep state’, which prompted two high-profile trials in 2008 and 2010. His party (the AKP) has previously presented questionable evidence about a potential military coup, subsequently arresting hundreds of military personnel and journalists.
This failed coup also allows Erdogan to frame Fethullah Gülen and the Hizmet movement as terrorists to the international media, and link Gülen, however tenuously, to wider fears around terrorism. If one is to believe Erdogan, Gülen has used immense coercive power throughout the Turkish media, political, judicial and military structures to create and ferment political unrest. This narrative has been used to justify the rapid purge of not only the military, but also the judiciary. Indeed, laws to enable massive judicial reform were passed just last month.
By conflating soldiers with the state during the confusion and aftermath of the coup, he has managed to either remove or resolve two prime loci of potential dissent.
Paradoxically, this means that even though Erdogan is acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner, his political capital has been restored. To an international audience, he can frame his actions through a pro-democratic lens. His task has been simplified by the Western media, which struggles to articulate the complex world of Turkish politics in easily digestible news stories. Here, the coup was framed largely in black and white terms; military equals bad, democracy equals good.
Regionally, it also restores his political image with a specific Islamic audience. Television footage has been filled with the background chant of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and the ‘rabia sign’ that denotes solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood (who are banned, but influential in many Middle Eastern states). The message intended for the Middle Eastern observers is that Erdogan has defeated anti-Islamic external provocateurs.
It also complements and enhances the recent ‘reset’ of Turkish foreign policy. Following the departure of former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after personal clashes with Erdogan, new PM Benali Yildrim and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu (both Erdogan loyalists) oversaw a number of rapid foreign policy changes. Turkey and Israel reached a deal to normalise relations on 26 June; Russia and Turkish relations improved after Erdogan apologised for downing a Russian F-16 last year; and finally, there were signals of rapprochement with Syria on 12 July, when the former head of Turkish intelligence told Foreign Policy magazine that conversations were being held to ‘prepare the ground for Turkey and Syria to resume diplomatic relations and political cooperation’.
The coup’s failure also strengthens Turkey’s position with large international players. John Kerry released a statement that ‘emphasized the United States’ absolute support for Turkey’s democratically-elected, civilian government’. Statements from Russian and European leaders declared support for Erdogan. Even the newly appointed UK foreign minister, Boris Johnson, was forced to defend the ‘democratic elected government’, only two months after winning a poetry competition in The Spectator with an entry that described Erdogan committing a lewd act with a goat.
Overall, it is hard to imagine a better short-term outcome for Erdogan. In coming months he is likely to consolidate power by calling for a referendum on a new presidential system that will further strengthen his executive powers. Given the public support shown for him, it is likely he will succeed, accompanied by a uncomfortable facade of international legitimacy.
The bigger question is how this plays into the future. Will Erdogan further exploit the coup for his personal ends, or will he embark on genuine reforms that have Turkish security front and foremost? Erdogan’s triumph will likely bring a natural end to Kemalist project, given its decreasing usefulness in managing Turkey’s exceptional geopolitical and ideational position in the current international environment. What replaces it is critical, because it's not only likely to shape Turkey’s future, but the wider region's political future as well.
Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency