The night Turkey’s democ­racy died

Coup at­tempt only con­firmed where Er­do­gan was headed

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Turkey’s democ­racy is dead. It was dy­ing any­way, as Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyib Er­do­gan took over me­dia out­lets, ar­rested po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and jour­nal­ists, and even restarted a war with the Kurds last au­tumn in or­der to win an elec­tion. But once part of the army launched a coup at­tempt on Fri­day night, it was dead no mat­ter which way the cri­sis ended.

It wasn’t a very com­pe­tent coup at­tempt. The first rule of coup-mak­ing is: Ar­rest or kill the per­son you are try­ing to over­throw. The coup lead­ers should have been able to grab Er­do­gan, who was on hol­i­day at the sea­side re­sort of Mar­maris, but they didn’t.

They didn’t shut down the In­ter­net and so­cial me­dia ei­ther, so Er­do­gan was able to use his cell­phone to get a mes­sage out on Face­Time, call­ing on his sup­port­ers to defy the sol­diers on the streets of Is­tan­bul and Ankara. They didn’t even shut down the broad­cast me­dia that sent Er­do­gan’s call out to the pub­lic.

It was three hours be­fore they oc­cu­pied the of­fices of TRT, the state broad­caster, and they were chased out again by Er­do­gan less than an hour later. They didn’t ever try to shut down the pri­vate television net­works, which have a much big­ger au­di­ence.

The sec­ond rule of coup-mak­ing is: Act as if you mean it. This usu­ally means that you have to be will­ing to kill peo­ple — but the colonels be­hind the coup (the gen­er­als were all vet­ted by Er­do­gan’s peo­ple) were largely re­luc­tant to use lethal force.

This is laud­able, in hu­man terms, but if you are try­ing to over­throw the rule of a ruth­less man who as­pires to ab­so­lute con­trol, it is a very bad mis­take. They took con­trol of Is­tan­bul air­port, but they were chased out again by Er­do­gan’s sup­port­ers be­cause they were not will­ing to shoot them — and Er­do­gan flew back into the city.

Maybe the coup-mak­ers were just too short of troops to grab con­trol of ev­ery­thing they needed to make the coup work. Maybe, also, they were afraid to or­der their troops to carry out a mas­sacre be­cause Turkey’s is a con­script army, and many of its young sol­diers — ba­si­cally civil­ians in uni­form for one year — might sim­ply refuse to kill their fel­low cit­i­zens.

At any rate, they didn’t use mas­sive vi­o­lence in Is­tan­bul (42 peo­ple were re­port­edly killed in Ankara), and so they were soon in re­treat. But there can be no happy end­ing to this episode.

Democ­racy would ob­vi­ously have been dead if the rebels won. Al­most ex­actly half of Turkey’s vot­ers backed Er­do­gan in the last elec­tion, so a mil­i­tary regime would have had to stay in power for a long time. It would not have dared to hold a free elec­tion and risk Er­do­gan re­turn­ing to power.

It would have been equally dead if the coup had par­tially suc­ceeded and the army had re­ally split, for that would have meant civil war. Mer­ci­fully that pos­si­bil­ity has now dis­ap­peared, but democ­racy is dead in Turkey even if the coup was ut­terly de­feated.

A tri­umphant Er­do­gan will seize this op­por­tu­nity to com­plete his takeover of all the ma­jor state or­ga­ni­za­tions and the me­dia, and be­come (as his fol­low­ers often call him) the “Sul­tan” of Turkey. That is a tragedy, be­cause five or 10 years ago Turkey seemed well on the way to be­ing the sort of democ­racy, with free me­dia and the rule of law, where a coup like this was sim­ply in­con­ceiv­able.

When Er­do­gan won his first elec­tion in 2002, promis­ing to re­move all the re­stric­tions that pi­ous Mus­lims suf­fered un­der the rigidly sec­u­lar con­sti­tu­tion, it seemed a rea­son­able step foward in the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion process. He kept his prom­ises about that, but grad­u­ally he went fur­ther, try­ing to Is­lamize the coun­try against the strong op­po­si­tion of the half of the pop­u­la­tion that favours a sec­u­lar state.

Luck­ily for Er­do­gan the Turk­ish econ­omy was boom­ing, so he went on win­ning elec­tions — and he worked steadily to con­cen­trate all power in his own of­fice. He re­moved any of­fi­cials who were not his avid sup­port­ers, at­tacked the free­dom of the me­dia, and com­mit­ted Turkey to un­con­di­tional sup­port for the Is­lamist rebels in neigh­bour­ing Syria.

The rebel army of­fi­cers may have been try­ing to stop all that, but it was a ter­ri­ble mis­take for which they will suf­fer se­vere pun­ish­ment. So will any­body who is even sus­pected of hav­ing sym­pa­thized with them, and Er­do­gan will emerge as the all-pow­er­ful “Sul­tan” of a post­demo­cratic Turkey.

The coup lead­ers made the same mis­take as the Egyp­tian lib­er­als made when they asked the army to over­throw the elected pres­i­dent there in 2013. Egypt had a pres­i­dent whom they feared and hated, but they also had a democ­racy that pro­vided a peace­ful means of oust­ing him.

Er­do­gan’s pop­u­lar­ity would have dwin­dled with time. The Turk­ish econ­omy is stag­nant, his Syr­ian pol­icy is a dis­as­ter, and the fla­grant cor­rup­tion of the peo­ple around him is get­ting hard to ig­nore. Sooner or later he would have lost an elec­tion. But like the Egyp­tian lib­er­als, the of­fi­cers who led the Turk­ish coup didn’t trust democ­racy enough to wait.


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