Turkey has a tumultuous history in which the Turkish Armed Forces have intervened in civilian politics on various occasions, either directly such as during the infamous 1980 military coup d’état, or more subtly and some would argue, insidiously, through institutional interference and judicial fiat. Turkey is still haunted by its military, and moreover, its military history, and nowhere is this more evident than in the media.
The political transformation of Turkey in the past decade has sparked widespread controversy in public opinion. While these acrimonious debates have yielded many colorful conspiracies, few of these can match the allegations which emerged last week concerning an alleged coup plot against the Turkish government.
This coup-story was quickly translated for consumption by Western audiences through the medium of Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute. His commentary is straightforward: the Turkish Military can copy the Egyptian example and effectuate a coup against Turkey’s mischievous President Erdoğan, execute him, and do all of this with relative impunity according to Rubin. Broadly speaking, there are three main problems with his analysis.
Firstly, it totally ignores fundamental changes to the domestic balance of power within the Turkish polity. Turkish governments since 2001 have carried out widespread reforms to curb the military’s influence over politics, with the view of advancing Turkey’s membership to the European Union.
As Rubin himself points out, the AKP accomplished this under the encouraging gaze of the West. The military was gradually pushed out of civilian institutions where it once exercised “advisory”, or “oversight”, functions; Turkey’s National Security Council, once responsible for ousting governments, became civilianized; and successive EU harmonization packages brought about effective parliamentary oversight to the military’s budget. The military did not object to these developments largely because EU membership was considered desirable.
Antagonisms arose between the military and the AKP after the latter consolidated its power in the 2007 election. The so-called Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials essentially purged the powerful upper-echelons of the Turkish military, while many other higher-level officials were prematurely forced into retirement.
Compounding the confusion, the charges were later dropped in 2014. Erdoğan conveyed an insincere mea culpa: he was tricked by Gülenists (disciples of a US-based Turkish cleric) who, prior to December 2013, were stalwart allies controlling key positions in the judiciary and other government bureaucracies. The point is, the military chose not to leave the barracks and obeyed civilian authority throughout this period.
Secondly, the Turkish Armed Forces must have been painfully aware of the contradictions of their mission. Fostering a liberal democracy to elevate Turkey to the level of contemporary civilization also requires tolerating religious parochialism. Neither international governmental fora and public opinion, nor Turkish society want to see another coup. Even during the escalating conflict between the government and the military in run up to the 2007 general elections, most Turks spoke against a coup and condemned the military for publishing a message that was interpreted as a coup threat.
Turkey’s military have probably realized that their attempts to replace past governments only undermined their legitimacy. In fact, given the popularity of the AKP’s victimization discourse, it is probably not in the military’s best interest to provide further ammunition for disgruntled voters who may rally around Erdoğan.
This brings us to the third problem: articles such as Rubin’s tend to reinforce authoritarian discourses and, in this case, may play directly into Erdoğan’s hands. As astute readers may already know, the original coup allegations this piece was based on concerned Gülenists in the Turkish Armed Forces and whether or not they could initiate a coup.
The Turkish military has already announced that these allegations are baseless. Moreover, such claims should be understood in the context of a broader design by the Turkish government to conjure societal fears of foreign and clandestine powers sabotaging Turkey from the shadows. Pro-government media regularly attack Gülenists, Jews, foreign journalists, opposition politicians, foreign leaders, and a host of other actors for trying to undermine Erdoğan.
For these reasons it is tragic when op-eds like Rubin’s make wild claims and speculations about regime change, coups, and political executions. Not only do these comments make light of a very serious issue, but can also play into the hands of the very forces they ostensibly seek to oppose.
Turkey is going through hard times, but it is clear that even in the country’s imperfect political system, democracy is the only game in town. Turkey’s military simply does not have the power or motivation to initiate a coup. Even if it did, it could not possibly hope to do so without experiencing severe societal and international backlash, as an ill-advised Rubin argues. Ultimately, the problem is one of managing long-term expectations as the coup of today is just votes for AKP-style parties tomorrow.