Turkey experienced four occasions in the 20th century when military officers overthrew the legally constituted government – five if you count the time Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (as he later became known) founded the modern Republic of Turkey, in the process consigning the Ottoman Empire to the pages of history.
The Republic came into existence in 1923, and from then until 1950, was a one-party state governed without troubling ordinary citizens to cast a vote. As soon as those citizens got the chance they opted for a new party, the Democrats, led by Adnan Menderes. In 1960 that party was overthrown by a faction within the military. Menderes and two of his ministers were hanged after a hasty ‘trial’. Dilek’s father, a career staff officer with the rank of colonel, was forced into early retirement, along, we can assume, with others who had been reluctant to support the revolt.
Two more military coups followed in 1971 and 1980, the latter resulting in several years of military rule characterised by severe oppression, arrests, torture, disappearances and forced exile of ‘dissidents’. Turkey’s current constitution was written by the leaders of the 1980 coup, and one of its key features was measures aimed at ensuring that parties representing the political Left and the Kurdish people would not be able to gain representation in parliament.
When I first came to Turkey in 1995 there was clearly an atmosphere of restraint, if not fear. The word ‘Kurdish’ could not be uttered in polite conversation, and use of the language was proscribed. Platoons of soldiers with automatic weapons jogged along public streets, and people I knew would say they were ‘protecting’ the country’s democratic and secular constitution. The country was suffering from horrendous hyperinflation and governed by weak coalition governments formed by an ever-changing square-dance of corrupt, self-seeking political parties, none of which was capable of achieving more than 20% of the popular vote. In 1997 there was a ‘post-modern’ coup when the military commanders politely advised the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to step aside or face the consequences – which he wisely did. Erbakan was leader of Turkey’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and had gained the top job as the result of a questionable deal with centre-right, Kemalist, economics professor and the country’s first woman prime minister, Tansu Çiller.
It was a strange, surrealistic time, and Turkey was something of a pariah on the international stage. I have written elsewhere about what has happened in the intervening nineteen years – but critics of the present government should certainly familiarise themselves with the country’s recent history before racing to exercise their tongues or typing fingers. There is no doubt in my mind that, had the AK Party government of Mr Erdoğan not succeeded in pre-emptively subordinating Turkey’s armed forces to the rule of law, they would long since have been ousted and imprisoned, or worse.
Friday night’s attempted takeover by a section of the military failed for a number of reasons. First, as one commentator has observed, it was an old-school coup in the social media age. Television came late to Turkey, and for years, radio and TV broadcasting was a state-monopoly. In days gone by generals took over the TRT building and announced a fait accompli to people who had no other source of information. This time state TV channels were reading a prepared statement from the coup-leaders while viewers were watching a different story unfold on outlets run by the private sector. The government was using social media to call people out on to the streets and oppose the attempted takeover. There was no news blackout as in the past. Holidaying in Bodrum far from events in Istanbul and Ankara, with our TV sitting rarely used in a corner, the first we heard of the uprising was when Dilek’s daughter called from America to learn if we were ok.
Another reason for the failure is that Turkey, whatever you may hear to the contrary, is well on the road to becoming a mature democracy. There are still some who believe that ‘democracy’ needs to be imposed by military force when the ignorant masses prove incapable of making the ‘right’ choice, but they are an ever-shrinking minority. The AK Party government has given a voice to large sections of Turkey’s population who were formerly repressed, oppressed or suppressed. There is now a large middle class, and increasing numbers of people who feel a debt of loyalty and allegiance to the government for their improved standard of living. Hundreds of thousands of these people were prepared to brave the tanks and automatic rifles of soldiers on Friday night to oppose the coup. You may have seen horrific pictures of a soldier beheaded by a ‘lynch mob’. It is not altogether surprising that civilians who went out to face trained, well-armed troops with only iron bars and knives, seeing friends and neighbours shot by their fellow-countrymen, might seek vengeance when the tide turned in their favour. Civil wars are notorious for vicious cruelty. However, it is undoubtedly true that police and security forces, after accepting the surrender of rebel soldiers and forcing them to lay down their arms, worked hard to control the righteous anger of citizens, and prevent hotheads from laying hands on the discarded weapons. More heads could have rolled otherwise – and certainly would have if the coup had succeeded.
Several theories have emerged about the background to the uprising. A small group of cynics, or anti-government loudmouths, are insisting or implying that the action was orchestrated and stage-managed by Mr Erdoğan and the government to cement their hold on power. There are several reasons why I do not accept this. First, the AK Party government has been gaining increased support anyway as a result of its ongoing struggle against terrorist activities. Second, I don’t believe that Mr Erdoğan and his people would be so cynical and power-crazy as to precipitate a possible bloodbath on their streets. Third, those coup-leaders have been humiliated, and vilified by their own people, and now face the wrath of the law. Some voices are calling for reinstatement of the death penalty. Is it likely that educated, intelligent, high-ranking officers would put their lives at risk to advance the ambition of politicians?
A more persuasive theory is that the government knew there were still elements within the military who opposed them to the extent that they were considering seditious action. It is difficult to deal with such a threat, however, before potential rebels have actually committed themselves to open rebellion. Therefore, the argument goes, officers loyal to the government encouraged their rebellious colleagues in the belief that a coup would have wide support, in order to flush them out. Again, however, it is obvious that even a small-scale coup attempt by true believers carries the likelihood of much bloodshed, and the possibility that it will be successful – too much of a risk, in my estimation.
So why would they do it? Well, there is no doubt that some people in Turkey, and beyond its shores, hate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with a passion beyond reason. These people are deaf to any argument suggesting that the AK Party government has actually made Turkey a better place to live for the majority of its citizens, and improved its credibility and standing on the world stage. Most of these people talk only to like-minded others, accept wholeheartedly the most absurd and patently false propaganda, and have persuaded themselves, in the absence of effective political opposition, that the only way forward is for the military to step in and restore . . . whatever it is they want restored, as it has so often in the past. One can only think that there was a coterie of high-ranking officers who believed the rhetoric and saw themselves as saviours of the secular republic, in the tradition of Atatürk himself.
Sadly for them, and the soldiers who followed their orders, there will now be a stiff price to pay. No government can accept armed rebellion by its own people, and such treason carries a mandatory death penalty in the USA. New Zealand abolished hanging for high treason in 1989 – but as far as I know my country has never had a military coup, unless you count the overthrow of indigenous Maori sovereignty by white settlers in the 19th century. Turkey, following EU demands, did away with capital punishment completely, so it is probable that lengthy jail sentences await those convicted of participation in Friday’s revolt. If they do, it will not be a ‘purge’ as one international headline asserted. It will be due process of law punishing citizens who knowingly and deliberately committed the most serious crime in any country’s statute books.
Interestingly, international news sites that were headlining reports of a military coup in Turkey have now relegated its failure to their back pages – replaced by news of Pokemon-induced chaos in New York City and events of similar global significance. Not in disappointment, I hope, though I suspect there are some out there who would be happy to see Turkey revert to military rule so they could go back to belittling the country as a primitive backwater whose citizens are incapable of governing themselves. What is it about English toffs with the surname ‘Blair’ I wonder? Someone of that name writing for the Daily Telegraph has penned an article entitled: ‘You thought Erdoğan was bad before? The worst is yet to come’. Well, that probably sums it up, in fact. If you were one of those blinkered souls determined to condemn Turkey and its government despite all evidence to the contrary, of course you will continue to do so. The more open-minded will use the eyes and the brains that God gave them.