Turkey is in disarray following a failed coup attempt by a rebel faction within the Turkish military on Friday night. Tanks were present on the roads and fighter jets in the night sky over Ankara as this faction pushed to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Despite having appeared to have achieved their goal early on, the rebels have since surrendered and the government remains in control.
Turkey has a well-documented history of military coups, however on this occasion the events in the capital should be regarded as widely unexpected considering there has not been an official coup attempt since 1980. There was what commentators refer to as a ‘post-modern coup’ in 1997 in which the military issued ‘recommendations’ to the government. These recommendations were given with the implicit threat of a potential takeover by force, and thus the government was compelled to comply.
In Turkey, the military has historically played a significant role in the running of the state. It regards itself as the ‘guardian’ and protector of the ideals of the nation’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk led Turkey through its War of Independence which ensued after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War. He was subsequently elected to be the state’s first President and brought in sweeping social reforms in an effort to modernise Turkey in the image of the developed West, and therefore more appealing to Europe. Prominent changes brought about by Kemal included the banning of traditional Islamic clothing such as the Hijab, the importation the Swiss civil code, and the substitution of traditional Arabic for modern Latin-based Turkish. These changes have come to be recognised as the doctrine of ‘Kemalism’, the values and ideals which guided the transition between the religious Ottoman Empire to the secular Turkish Republic of today.
The military believes it is charged to maintain and protect the doctrine of Kemalism, and the secularism it champions. In the past, when the military has intervened in state politics it has been because it believes these ideals are under threat. In the 1990s, Islamist parties were making vast gains, and this in turn led the military to step in and force change, which in this case saw the resignation of the then President Necmettin Erbakan. Once the leading Islamist party – the Islamist Welfare Party – had been stripped of power, they were shut down and some members given political bans. As a consequence of this ‘post – modern coup’ came the formation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – the party currently in control of the country and led by Erdogan.
President Erdogan has been in power since the 2014 elections in which he was democratically elected with just over half of the electorate voting for him. It is this fact that he was elected to power through free and fair elections, and only just two years ago, that has drawn much negative reaction toward those who plotted the coup, and why the events have been described as a ‘stain on our democracy’ by the country’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
The events have highlighted democracy in Turkey and in what form it should be exercised. Should the military have sat back and allowed the AKP to, in their opinion, challenge and threaten the ideas of Kemal as the majority of Turkish people had voted for Erdogan? Or were they correct in attempting to ‘reset’ Turkish democracy and strengthen the republic’s secularism in spite of Erdogan’s mandate to rule? It is almost certain that, having held on to power, Erdogan will tighten his grip on power and make any detractors pay, and moreover will use this opportunity to take actions he would otherwise not have been able to, for example, he has so far relieved approximately two-thousand judges; one would imagine these judges were on different parts of the ideological spectrum than the president.
There is no doubt that what has happened in Turkey will have a profound impact on their already slim aspirations to join the European Union. If the country with the second largest army in NATO is unable to be recognised as stable by the international community, and shows signs that its democratic principles are under threat, it is really up against it when (or if) it comes to an accession vote.