Whether or not you believe that President Erdogan of Turkey was behind the weekend coup, he is undoubtedly the biggest winner. Erdogan’s government has already arrested over six thousand individuals suspected of being involved in the attempted coup, only around half of whom are from the military with the rest being members of the judiciary. But why did this coup occur in the first place, and who might have been behind it? For today this is the question I will seek to answer and to explore further the background to the coup.
The simple reason for the coup is Erdogan himself and his policies. Erdogan, also known as Turkey’s “Ruthless President“, is well known for his increasingly authoritarian government and heavy use of state power to cement his own and silence critics. He is also known however, for his significant achievements; namely, the rapid expansion of the Turkish economy under his rule and his efforts to bring unaccountable institutions (i.e. the military) under the control of democratically elected institutions. But most importantly Erdogan is known as an Islamist, even if a relatively moderate one. Turkey was founded by the military leader Mustafa Kemal as a staunchly secular state. Erdogan is only the second Islamist leader of Turkey, and the first to rule for more than a year. This makes Erdogan a deeply polarizing figure. Turkey is at once a deeply religious country that prides itself on its secular constitution, and Erdogan’s Islamist policies have threatened to upset a delicate balance. Erdogan’s main opponent has been the military, traditionally dominated by Kemalists (followers of Mustafa Kemal) and who see themselves as the guardian of Turkey’s secularism. The military has historically launched a number of coups and intervened in other ways in Turkish politics to further this mission. But the way this coup was carried out has left a number of questions about who and why it was carried out.
As reported in The New York Times,
As coups go, the Turkish effort was a study in ineptitude: No serious attempt to capture or muzzle the existing political leadership, no leader ready to step in, no communication strategy (or even awareness of social media), no ability to mobilize a critical mass within either the armed forces or society. In their place a platoon of hapless soldiers on a bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul and the apparently uncoordinated targeting of a few government buildings in Ankara.
Roger Cohen, The New York Times
In addition to the remarkably sloppy nature of the coup itself, the speed with which Erdogan has used to coup to round up his opponents, both within and without the military, has also called the motivations of the coup plotters into question. Erdogan is quite insistent that the coup was directed by followers of the influential cleric Fethullah Gulen despite there being no evidence of any links between Gulen and the coup. It is also important to note that in recent years Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan, has become one of Erdogan sharpest critics protesting against his increasing authoritarianism. Furthermore, most of those arrested in the wake of the coup have been followers of Gulen and critics of Erdogan, not necessarily those actually involved in the coup itself. Could this coup have been staged by Erdogan as an excuse to increase his power? The degree to which he has benefited from this coup is great enough to arouse suspicions, and indeed it is a very real possibility that this was a ‘false’ coup.
But there remains one major reason to truly believe that Erdogan was not responsible: he had no reason for it. While it is true that Erdogan has seen his popularity dip recently and opposition against him increase, his position was not poor enough to make such a risky move as a fake coup (which could always ‘accidentally’ become a real coup) desirable. Simply, Erdogan was not desperate enough to try something like this with as many risks as it carried. But the fact remains: the failed coup against Erdogan has allowed him to carry out a real one against his opponents.