TURKEY’S FAILED COUP : A WARNING SHOT
AND PRESIDENT ERDOGAN’S CHOICES : BY BRIGADIER AJIT NAIR (RETD)
The failed coup has sent a clear message to the Turkish establishment and to Erdogan in particular. That he must mend his autocratic ways, curb Police excesses and reign in the gradual Islamisation of the Country. And that the Army is restive and it will not tolerate any deviation from the Country’s basic Constitution. But Erdogan is a feisty customer and it’s a moot point whether he will heed the warning. Erdogan has ascribed the coup’s failure as a victory for the people and to his control over the Army – the fact that only a small fraction of the Army participated. That may well be true, but given Turkey’s turbulent history of the last 60 years or so, that’s no guarantee that the next coup will not succeed. Military coups do not need the people’s support, although that helps; and all other Parties and their supporters are bitterly opposed to Erdogan, the mutual stand and apparent agreement in Parliament of Saturday notwithstanding. Erdogan has severely restricted the powers of the Military by legislative action over the last few years and controlled the Generals, but past events have shown that coups can emanate at a relatively junior level.
Turkey was created by a General, after a violent uprising. And that explains the Army’s pre-eminent status ever since. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proved his mettle during the First World War and led his Country to Independence in 1922 and became its first President. His vision was of a Democratic and Secular Nation and he de facto appointed the Army to be the custodian of these values. The Army has taken this role very seriously indeed. Opting to stay out of politics but watching over political actions and their effect on the people. Whenever they felt that the mandate of the Founding Father was being violated, they stepped in with a military coup – but quickly handed power back to the politicians. Erdogan was the first PM to whittle away this pre-eminence, albeit only in his second term.
The Army and the Courts who interpret the Constitution, have resisted the slightest effort by politicians to even give an Islamic flavour to the Country. A classic example is that most ubiquitous though harmless symbol of Islam – the Head Scarf for women. Turkey has banned the head scarf in Public life and women may not wear it in any public office, in schools, hospitals or in the Courts. Any woman wearing a head scarf will not be employed by the Govt or any Public or private institution. France and Mexico too have banned the head scarf. But Turkey, though a secular country, has over 95% Muslims. It has resulted in a clash between those favouring the secular principles of the state, such as the Turkish Armed Forces, who form a minority of the population, and religious conservatives as well as Islamists, who form a majority of the population. And who form the majority of Erdogan’s supporters. Erdogan tried his best to remove the ban.
When Erdogan wanted to install Abdullah Gul in 2007 as President, the Army objected, because his wife wore the head scarf. Erdogan was confident enough to hold a private meeting with the Chief of Staff, and to go ahead with his nomination. But the Military Top Brass refused to attend any Ceremony presided over by Abdullah Gul, because his wife wore a head scarf. On February 7, 2008, the Turkish Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution, allowing women to wear the headscarf in Turkish universities, arguing that many women would not seek an education if they could not wear the head scarf. A reasonable argument. But Turkey's Constitutional Court annulled the Parliament's amendment, ruling that removing the ban was against the founding principles of the Constitution. Which may well be Erdogan’s angst against Judges. And clearly shows the Army’s almost fanatical support for Secularism.
Previous Coups. Through Erdogan’s fog this much seems clear: More than 35 years after the last coup, and almost two decades after the 1997 military intervention, the fight between Secularism and Islamism rages on. The first Coup – in 1960 was staged on grounds of socio-political and economic problems – and for Bloc loyalties. The Govt was broke and wanted Russian assistance and the Coup leaders wanted to remain in NATO/CENTO. The second Coup in 1971 was on political instability and was action-less. The Army issued a Memorandum, akin to an Ultimatum – reform or else....The Govt resigned, but the Army, reluctant to take over overtly, directed from behind the scene, with the Legislature still functioning. The third Coup in 1980 was mainly because of economic problems and partly political. There was widespread arrests and incarcerations, torture and missing people. The Constitution was re-written. The last Coup was in 1997 – actually another Memorandum. This was directed against the Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party, of which Erdogan was a member and serving as the Mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, the Welfare Party was banned by the Constitutional court and Erdogan jailed and banned from politics for five years. These events led him to deeply resent the Army and the Courts.
Why did this current Coup collapse so quickly? Firstly, the Coup was extremely poorly organised. Even with tanks, attack helicopters and fighter aircraft, it collapsed within six hours !! Without any major opposition from organised security forces, either Army or Police. There was no attempt to shut down the major civil TV stations, no attempt to arrest the civilian leadership, including Erdogan. The Coup looks extremely contrived. They tried too little and gave up too fast. While Erdogan accused Fethullah Gulen of master-minding or actively assisting the Coup, Gulen promptly counter accused Erdogan of staging a “fake” Coup. With a lot of plausibility. If a litmus test of ‘who did the failed coup serve’ is applied – Erdogan seems the more likely of the two. The New York Times says this about the Coup – “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.”
The Gulen factor. Fethullah Gulen is a Green Card holding, moderate Turkish cleric who lives in voluntary exile in Pennsylvania US, since 1998. He leads from exile a popular movement called Hizmet – "a moderate, pro-Western brand of Sunni Islam that appeals to many well-educated and professional Turks" according to CNN. For decades he was a close confidant of President Erdogan and was one of the key factors in Erdogan’s AK Party winning three elections – in 2001, 2006 and 2011. They fell out in 2013 on issues of corruption. "As someone who suffered under multiple military coups during the past five decades, it is especially insulting to be accused of having any link to such an attempt. I categorically deny such accusations," Gulen said. In an interview with CNN at the time, a top official from Erdogan's ruling AKP party called the Gulen movement a "fifth column" that had infiltrated the Turkish Military, police force and judiciary. Says writer Ahmet Sik who wrote the book "The Imam's Army," which took a critical look at the Gulen movement "On the one side, there is the Gulen community, a dark and opaque power that can damage the most powerful administration in Turkish history. And on the other side, you have an administration that under the guise of fighting this community can and has suspended all legal and democratic principles."
Erdogan’s AKP is the second Islamic oriented Party in power, after Erbakan of the Welfare Party was forced to resign. So Erdogan was extremely circumspect in his first tenure. His confidence grew with his second tenure and he began to meddle in promotion policy and retribution against the Army. In 2007, when his choice of President was resented by the Army, he didn’t acquiesce. Instead he held a closed door meeting with the Chief of Staff and went ahead anyway. In his third tenure, Erdogan was a confident PM and he took on the Generals. He even convened a trial in 2012 of the Generals who conducted the 1997 coup. He curbed Press freedom, was against Jews and Christians, against alcohol, reformed Labour Laws and considerably improved the economy, brought inflation down and reduced the CAD and foreign debt. Turkey’s economy became debt-free and Erdogan felt he had the political freedom to Islamise the Country further. And his authoritarianism grew. But in the last three years, Turkey’s economy has taken a dramatic downturn for the worse. In the 2013 Gezi Park protests against the perceived authoritarianism of Erdogan and his policies, starting from a small sit-in in Istanbul in defence of a City park. After the police's intense reaction with tear gas, the protests grew each day. Faced by the largest mass protest in a decade, Erdogan made this controversial remark in a televised speech: "The police were there yesterday, they are there today, and they will be there tomorrow." After weeks of clashes in the streets of Istanbul, his government at first apologized to the protestors and called for a plebiscite, but then ordered a crackdown on the protesters. The stage was set for Military intervention.
Erdogan’s first choice, which he’s implementing speedily, is to use the failed coup as a means to consolidate his position, curb press and other freedoms further, and become even more Autocratic. He has accepted the failed coup as a blank cheque to arrest anybody he feels like, in a virtual witch hunt, without any reasonable cause. His statement “They will pay a heavy price for this. This uprising is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our Army” is extremely telling. His sacking or arrest of over 2750 Judges, about 20% of Turkey’s Judiciary is baffling. How were the Judges involved in the coup? His arrest of thousands of military and Police officers is fraught with danger. This includes two of his three Field Army Commanders – of the 2nd and 3rd Field Armies. The Commander of the 1st Field Army was promoted to Army Chief. No Army will accept the public humiliation of its officers, especially the seniormost ones lightly. Proclamations by both the President and PM of the loyalty and courage of the rest of its Army is unlikely to assuage the tensions within. Erdogan has shrewdly asked the people to remain on the streets for the next one week. He obviously fears a second coup to finish the incomplete and botched job.
Turkish politics and society have been extremely polarised and the failed coup is a signal for Erdogan to be more inclusive and democratic. He has to eschew his authoritarian tendencies and rely more on Institutions. His grandiose plans like shifting into the 'Ak Saray' Presidential Palace, one of the largest in the world and to cut down all the trees in the Gezi Park and build a grand mosque, which sparked off the protests, have severely dented his popularity and image. The Kemalists (which includes the Military) and the secular liberals need to be taken on board, or at least placated. A successful coup could well be a disaster for Turkey, throwing the Country into turbulent strife – between the Islamists and the rest – an unwinnable war for both and something the World least needs in this already troubled region. Turkey can yet prove that it is the model of a democratic Islamic State. The question is – does Erdogan have the Statesmanship to do it?