The short term consequences resulting from this weekend’s stunning failed coup attempt in Turkey seem clear enough. Surviving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position is strengthened, allowing him to energetically purge the disloyal army of both Gulenist and Kemalist factions who wish him ill.
In his defiant speech from Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Erdogan laid the blame for the coup squarely at the feet of “those in Pennsylvania,” meaning exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former supporter of the president, now turned bitter enemy. A shadowy figure with followers permeating the military, court system, and police, for years Gulen proved to be a powerful, important, ally of the Turkish President.
However, in 2013, these former political partners in staring down Turkey’s secular establishment dramatically parted ways. Mired in corruption scandals which tainted his image as a clean pair of hands, Erdogan blamed Gulenists for targeting his supporters, including his son Bilal. He responded to the charges by purging the judiciary and police of Gulenist supporters, shifting back toward a temporary alliance with the cowed army as a base of power to see off the Gulenist challenge.
In this purge he was successful, as ultra-loyal police forces just played a major role in putting down the attempted coup. With the failure of the plot, Erdogan can continue his housecleaning of Gulenists from the military itself.
By sweeping away competing power centers in the army, the judiciary, and the police force, Erdogan has superficially vanquished his foesDr. John C. Hulsman
As harmed as the Gulenist cause is by the failure of the revolt, the aborted coup signals nothing so much as the death knell of the formerly dominant secular “Deep State:” the cadre of secular political, intelligence and military officials who have really run Turkey for much of the time since Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state.
In their statement announcing the coup, the military faction accused Erdogan of undermining the country’s secular tradition, with his advocacy of a relatively moderate form of Islamism. Given the armed forces unofficial but deeply held belief that it is the guardian of country’s founding Kemalist secular culture, this was reason enough for Erdogan’s overthrow.
But the coup – if bloody in that over 200 people died – was put down with relative ease, over the course of a single evening. It signals the likely last hurrah of the army-dominated Deep State. Over time, Erdogan has been highly successful in dealing with the once over-mighty army, pensioning off secularists in the high command (and marginalising the remnant), all the while promoting more overtly Islamist officers.
It was this mortal final institutional threat to their shrinking power base that seems to have compelled the Kemalist faction within the army to act. Their failure signals their political doom, as Erdogan has grimly noted that the failed coup amounts to “an opportunity” to once and for all cleanse the armed forces of its formerly dominant Kemalist orientation.
A sign of weakness, not strength
But if in the short run Erdogan emerges from the ashes of the failed coup phoenix-like, with his power enhanced, and if his enemies in the Gulenist movement and the army lie in ruins, the longer term picture for Turkey that the coup exposed is far less clear.
The standard Western narrative about the present state of the Middle East holds that while the Arab world is in chaos following the failure of the Arab Spring, the more coherent, non-Arab states at the periphery of the Middle East – Iran, Israel, and Turkey – are the dominant players. The failed Turkish coup calls this common belief into fundamental question, as suddenly Erdogan’s reign seems far less secure than it did, even days ago.
The Turkish President’s form of majoritarian democracy – a system with few checks and balances beyond the ultimate power of the people to eject him from office – now looks politically brittle. By sweeping away competing power centers in the army, the judiciary, and the police force, Erdogan has superficially vanquished his foes, rather than co-opting them through the usual democratic norm of political compromise.
The problem with this method is that while the ruling AKP Party tends to have slightly more than majority support across the country, it does leave a huge, embittered and massive minority of the country (well over 40 percent) implacably opposed to Erdogan’s increasingly over-mighty behavior.
The fact that he has no rivals in his own party means that he also has no obvious successor to carry on his mildly Islamist reforms in a heretofore secular Turkish society. In dominating everyone, Erdogan is a one-man band.
The problem with this is that it exposes the fragility of his political project, in that he and he alone is all that is holding his immediate political ascendancy together. It is that political fragility that the failed coup has just exposed for all to see.
So while in the aftermath of the failed coup, the Turkish President bestrides the Bosporus like a political colossus, real cracks are showing in the grand edifice of his rule. Turkey is not the stable state it was taken for just a few days ago.
Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.