Last night’s fight for Turkish Democracy could not have been more undemocratic. Ironically, both sides, the military dissidents and the country’s nationalist forces, claimed they were fighting to preserve the Turkish state, to uphold human rights, and to protect democracy.
More than that, it was a night in which one of Erdoğan’s persistent conspiracy theories, the possibility of a military coup, sprung to life. And in repelling the now ‘failed’ coup, Erdoğan has been given the keys to a coup of his own, a nationalist one.
To be clear, the military insurrection was misguided, deadly, and wrong. Yet what both the nationalists and the dissidents fail to comprehend is that Turkey’s democracy can only be strengthened from the ground up. Dramatic street-fighting does not a democracy make, nor is it a sign of healthy democratic foundations.
In Turkey, the military exists in the popular imagination as a force waiting to rise up. After all, it has repeatedly done so with varying degrees of success: in 1960, after which Adnan Menderes was brutally executed, the 1980 coup which catalysed almost apocalyptic bloodshed and violence throughout the country and the 1997 so-called bloodless coup which removed Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan from power.
Like inanimate dolls waiting to spring to life, or robots on the verge of an uprising, the military is the bogeyman of Turkish politics.
This fear of the uncanny, of the ‘parallel state’, of the conspiratorial enemy lurking in the recesses of Turkish politics and its politician’s minds has always been a feature of the Turkish political experience. Yet more than any other public figure, Erdoğan has fuelled, explored, and dramatized the idea of conspiracy in Turkey. So much so, that his repeated ramblings, against Jews, women, lobbyists, and of course Gülenists, have become a key characteristic of his strongman political persona. After the failed coup, this type of rhetoric will likely now be used to justify any and all political decision-making.
Conspiracy theories abound in Turkey. Ranging from the historical to the ideological, from the religious to the mundane, politics in modern Turkey is undeniably inundated with Accusations of Conspiracy. And the polarisation and high visibility of social tensions that have marked the latest years of the AKP Government have only served to increase such rhetoric.
Amidst the ongoing legal battles between the State and its opponents, accusations of Conspiracy have become part of the daily news-cycle. Now, it seems, one such conspiracy has sprung to life. And it was not one that many saw coming.
Yet this very lack of a clear plotting agent, a vacuum filled by the familiar accusation against the self-exiled cleric Fetullah Gülen, only strengthened the horror and confusion of the night’s events. In the extremely contingent events that unfolded, the Government saw an opportunity to dramatically ‘take back’ its country. No doubt, the nationalist fantasy of taking to the streets, to literally fight for democracy rather than strengthening civil society or democratic politics, is the Erdoğan-doctrine’s final wish fulfilled. The resultant euphoria will be exploited to the fullest in the uncertain days and weeks to come, and it is extremely unlikely that it will make Turkey a more democratic or just society.
Already, the Turkish Government is weighing the idea of reintroducing the death penalty (always a contentious issue, the abolishment of which was a landmark event in Turkey’s once more hopeful EU negotiations) and the US secretary of State John Kerry is being forced to at least consider deporting Gülen, an act it had previously categorically refused.
Listening to KPBX last night, far away in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the newscaster expressed confusion at whether or not the Turkish coup was a good thing. After all, had they not been reporting negatively on Turkey’s lacklustre democratisation process for the last three years? And why was there a military coup promising to uphold human rights? How can one possibly argue for democracy while bombing the very same?
The confusion is relatable, and to understand the situation better requires both an acknowledgement of the changing nature of the military in Turkey, and the current Government’s attempts to weaken said military and to strengthen its own intelligence services. Nonetheless, as the smoke from yesterday’s battles drifts away, many more questions remain unanswered, and the contradictions are more apparent than any concrete answers one might articulate.
In the case of Turkey’s supposed authoritarianism, or slide towards it, one contradiction is expressed quite well when the current political elite prosecutes and imprisons critical journalists, lawyers, and others who speak out against government policies. Yet still the Turkish political elite can claim to uphold freedom of speech, even boasting that Turkey has ‘the world’s freest press’. With images of military factions taking over news outlets, one could not help but be reminded of how the Government itself had raided and taken over news outlets in recent months.
In his description of Conspiratorial politicians, the political scientist Charles Pigden suggested that the politico’s knack for paranoia constitutes a professional hazard. He describes paranoid politicians as ‘the real devotees of conspiracy’ who ‘try to frustrate those conspiracies with counterplots of their own.
These counterplots will now be more ruthless than ever. Despite the jubilant rhetoric, let it be clear: Turkey’s democracy remains under siege. Last night Democracy may have been ‘saved’, but for it to be a garden that bears fruit will require careful cultivation and a long-term commitment to democratic values, not just nationalist sentiment.