Lessons of a failed coup

The Pak Banker - - EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

The spec­ta­cle of un­armed civil­ians block­ing army tanks, over­pow­er­ing sol­diers and forc­ing them to the ground in the streets seemed sur­real. It was a rare show of peo­ple's power de­feat­ing a coup at­tempt. What hap­pened in Turkey last week­end is a sign of chang­ing times.

Although it was a putsch by rene­gade mem­bers of the armed forces, the events of the past week have com­pletely al­tered the power dy­nam­ics in the coun­try where the mil­i­tary had for long wielded supreme au­thor­ity. It may not be a vic­tory for democ­racy, but cer­tainly if a tri­umph for a pop­ulist elected lead­er­turned-au­to­crat.

For al­most a cen­tury, since the birth of modern Turkey, the mil­i­tary had re­mained the guardian of the coun­try's sec­u­lar tra­di­tion. The mil­i­tary's po­lit­i­cal role has been en­shrined in the con­sti­tu­tion that le­git­imised its fre­quent in­ter­ven­tion in the coun­try's pol­i­tics. It had suc­cess­fully staged three coups in the last cen­tury and had ex­e­cuted elected lead­ers. The Is­lamists were barred from pol­i­tics for not be­ing in line with the coun­try's found­ing vi­sion. The dan­ger of the mil­i­tary strik­ing back has not gone away as Er­do­gan con­sol­i­dates his power.

But the sit­u­a­tion changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past decade with the com­ing to power of the Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP), a so­cially con­ser­va­tive party with an agenda for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment led by Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, in 2002.

The party has won four elec­tions since then. Its pop­u­lar­ity went up each time it pulled out the coun­try out of po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity and per­pet­ual eco­nomic cri­sis. Turkey be­came one of the fastest­grow­ing economies. The coun­try has earned a cov­eted place among the top 20 global economies.

This re­mark­able eco­nomic turn­around of Turkey strength­ened the civil­ian au­thor­ity and con­se­quently un­der­mined the power and in­flu­ence of the mil­i­tary. Er­do­gan, who ear­lier served two terms as prime min­is­ter and was re­cently elected as the coun­try's pres­i­dent, had opened up cases against re­tired top mil­i­tary of­fi­cers for plot­ting a coup against elected gov­ern­ments, many of whom are serv­ing jail sen­tences. He had fur­ther con­sol­i­dated his power by purg­ing the mil­i­tary.

This ac­cu­mu­la­tion of power has made Er­do­gan unar­guably the most pow­er­ful leader since Mustafa Ke­mal, the founder of modern Turkey. That has also turned him into an au­to­crat. He has ruth­lessly crushed any op­po­si­tion and clamped down on the in­de­pen­dent me­dia. His rule has also eroded the sec­u­lar char­ac­ter of the coun­try, rais­ing its Is­lamic iden­tity. All these fac­tors could be the rea­son be­hind the mutiny within the mil­i­tary.

For sure, it was mostly Er­do­gan sup­port­ers who came out on the streets de­fy­ing the rebels, but sec­u­lar forces too backed the gov­ern­ment de­spite be­ing vic­timised by the in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian rule of Er­do­gan. That un­der­lines the grow­ing po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus in Turkey that a mil­i­tary takeover is not a so­lu­tion.

It, how­ever, re­mains to be seen whether the tri­umph would make Er­do­gan more au­to­cratic, or re­turn him to the demo­cratic path. The dan­ger of the mil­i­tary strik­ing back has not gone away as Er­do­gan con­sol­i­dates his power. It is hard to imag­ine the same kind of pub­lic up­ris­ing against a more or­gan­ised and co­or­di­nated coup at­tempt in the fu­ture.

What hap­pened in Turkey has trig­gered in­tense po­lit­i­cal de­bate in Pak­istan about whether the same could hap­pen here in the event of a mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. With a com­mon tra­di­tion of fre­quent mil­i­tary coups in the two coun­tries, the com­par­i­son seems in­evitable. Im­ran Khan has fur­ther fired up the con­tro­versy by declar­ing that the peo­ple would come out in sup­port of the mil­i­tary in Pak­istan. One is not sure whether it is just wish­ful think­ing of a po­lit­i­cal leader long­ing for some 'di­vine' help or whether he is merely re­flect­ing the pub­lic frus­tra­tion with the Sharif gov­ern­ment.

Surely the PTI chair­man is not the only one pre­dict­ing a smooth takeover if the gen­er­als de­cide to move in. Pak­istan's past ex­pe­ri­ence may lend some cre­dence to such ar­gu­ments. Yet one must not ig­nore the chang­ing po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics in the coun­try that may not al­low the re­turn of mil­i­tary rule, not­with­stand­ing the pub­lic dis­en­chant­ment with the gov­ern­ment and de­sire of some politi­cians and self­serv­ing TV an­chors. Surely the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship is ma­ture enough to un­der­stand the cost and po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of any Bon­a­partism. There is lit­tle prob­a­bil­ity of a Turkey-like pop­u­lar re­sis­tance to any mil­i­tary takeover bid in Pak­istan. Yet there is no mass wel­come wait­ing for a po­ten­tial coup-maker ei­ther. In­deed the armed forces have re­gained pub­lic re­spect and won ad­mi­ra­tion for their role in fight­ing mil­i­tancy and ter­ror­ism in the coun­try. Gen Ra­heel Sharif may well be the most pop­u­lar per­son in the coun­try. But it would cer­tainly be a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion if he de­cided to in­ter­vene. Im­ran Khan and oth­ers of his ilk are grossly mis­taken about the pub­lic's likely re­ac­tion to a mil­i­tary takeover. It is no more a sit­u­a­tion where the gen­er­als could just walk into the cor­ri­dors of power amidst pub­lic cheer­ing. De­spite bit­ter po­lit­i­cal ri­val­ries, most of the po­lit­i­cal par­ties are in agree­ment not to sup­port any di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, days be­fore the bun­gled putsch in Turkey, posters im­plor­ing Gen Sharif to take over ap­peared in all the ma­jor ci­ties of Pak­istan. Sim­i­lar posters ap­peared ear­lier too when some ob­scure groups took out ral­lies in sup­port of the army chief. But there was no groundswell of sup­port for the move. It only brought em­bar­rass­ment to the gen­eral, who has al­ready an­nounced he will not seek an­other term in of­fice.

What Im­ran Khan has failed to un­der­stand is that it would be a col­lec­tive fail­ure of the po­lit­i­cal forces and not just of the Sharif gov­ern­ment if the mil­i­tary re­turns to power and is greeted by the peo­ple. Pak­istan may not be Turkey, but those invit­ing mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion must learn some lessons from the events of the last week.

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