It usually happens once a decade. The Turkish army, or elements within it, decides to challenge the country’s authorities. The generals explain this as a need to preserve democracy or secularism, or public order – or all three. It usually takes place during crises, political violence or when religious factors are strengthening.
The way the army legitimizes these moves is deeply rooted in the historical narrative of how the Turkish Republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and how the Turkish political culture has taken root over the years. Indeed, in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, the Turkish army succeeded – in different ways – to bring about regime change. However, in the last two decades, Turkey has developed significant immunity against recurrence, and the failed coup attempt of July 15 is an example of this.
The main change in the status of the army took place in the early years of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reign. One of Erdogan’s main objectives, after his party’s first victory in the 2002 elections, was to promote Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership. One of the most prominent conditions the EU presented to the Turkish leadership was to strengthen democracy by making the military leadership accountable to the political one. This also served the goals of Erdogan, who feared that the military would attempt to end his rule, as happened in 1997 to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who also came from the ranks of political Islam.
Erdogan has taken a series of substantive and symbolic steps to reshape the military class, one of the most prominent being a change in the composition of the National Security Council, so that it comprises a citizen majority rather than a military one. It was part of a series of democratic reforms led by Erdogan, for which he received in the early years of his term support from the country’s diverse population groups, including liberals and Kurds. Later in his reign, when Erdogan began to establish a more centralized government, he did not receive the same support from these groups, but their yearning for democracy has not been forgotten.
In 2007 it was crunch time. Abdullah Gul, one of the founders and senior members of the Justice and Development Party, ran in the Turkish presidential election held that year . His candidacy was a wake up call for the army, which saw him as a threat to ensuring the secular nature of the state. However, unlike in the past, the military did not send tanks into the streets or set an ultimatum to the prime minister. It issued a statement on its website, and made it clear that it would not hesitate to intervene and exercise its authority if necessary.
The reaction to this was surprising and served as a prelude to what happened in response to the latest coup attempt. Hordes of Turks took to the streets and demonstrated against the military attempt to influence the political process. The demonstrators were not only Erdogan supporters. They included secularists and liberals who shouted “No to shariah, no to revolutions”. The message was that the public is fed up with military coups, which symbolized the old and non-functional Turkey. The Turkey of these years was more successful and more confident, and saw itself as a key player in the region and internationally. Military coups no longer fit this narrative.
Opposition to military coups did not affect the positive fundamental relationship the Turkish people had with its army. In opinion polls carried out over the years, the Turkish army has repeatedly been portrayed as the official institution most highly regarded among the public. A Pew Institute survey published in October 2015 showed that this is still the case. According to the survey findings, the Turkish army was the only institution to be seen as favorable among more than 50% of the public.
The Turkish army also underwent changes that distanced itself from carrying out more coups. Erdogan established a practical grip on the army, appointed loyal officers and associates, and took legal action against officers suspected of revolutionary intentions. The tension between the Justice and Development Party and the army was evident, although in the last two years the trend actually reversed and there was a process of rapprochement. Officers who had been arrested were released from prison, and the army won greater freedom of action with regard to fighting against the Kurds.
When on the night of July 15 the Turkish military officials began to implement the coup they had devised, they found themselves working under different conditions from those that existed in previous coup attempts. They were unable to mobilize the entire military apparatus, and this left its mark on the operational aspects of the management of the coup. In addition, the public sphere did not allow the military freedom of action like it did in the past. Erdogan’s call to action via a cell phone to the citizens of Turkey take to the streets was extremely effective.
Erdogan’s supporters were not alone. Even the president’s political opponents came out against the coup. Citizens, the media (including those under attack from Erdogan) and the opposition parties (including the pro-Kurdish party, which Erdogan opposes), issued an appeal against regime change via a military coup. When it comes to their struggle over the future of Turkish democracy, they want to carry it out in a way that is loyal to their principles, similar to the civil struggle that took place in 2013 at Gezi Park.
The situation in the army, Erdogan’s popularity and the public’s opposition, determined the outcome of the coup attempt. While there are still some question marks regarding the timing of the coup, which came as a surprise, there is more clarity about what will happen now. Erdogan will leverage the events of recent days to increase his efforts to bolster his regime even more in the face of those in the army who oppose him, the justice system and the media. He already began to do this immediately after the suppression of the coup, highlighting his opponent Fethullah Gülen – an exiled cleric residing in Pennsylvania – as being behind the plot, and increasing pressure on the United States to extradite him to Turkey. It is also possible that Erdogan will exploit the situation to realize his ambition of officially establishing presidential rule in Turkey.
The steps Erdogan will take after the coup, in the name of protecting democracy, are expected to make the Turkish government even more centralized, and increase criticism of the president’s eroding of democracy. However, the survival of a democratically elected government – even if its behavior is problematic – is preferable to a change of government through a military coup. This is now very much understood in Turkey, and was reflected in statements published following the coup attempt in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and Jerusalem.