The failure of Turkey’s latest attempted coup will be complete when we see President Tayyip Erdogan return to his daily duties in Ankara.
Why did he first fly to Istanbul rather than his country’s capital? Because it contains the largest group of his supporters—perhaps 60 per cent of the city’s 14 million people. And they came through for him. It is also the base of Turkey’s powerful First Army. Note that its commanding officer was appointed acting chief of staff when the present incumbent was temporarily captured by the coup supporters. Erdogan clearly thinks this army is loyal.
What provoked this attempted insurrection? Turkey is becoming an unhealthily fractured society. Many people are deeply unhappy with the county’s direction; my guess is that the actual spark of the uprising was Erdogan’s suggestion of citizenship for the 2.5 million Syrian refugees crowding into the country. This will have caused resentment in many quarters. Turkish nationalism is ethnically based – hence the ongoing conflict with its Kurdish population. The idea of a large group of Arabs becoming “Turks” would stick in many a nationalist craw.
It has been suggested that followers of Fetullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric living in self-imposed exile in the United States, were behind the coup effort. Despite Erdogan’s attacks on him and his followers, I do not think this plausible. Gulen has never had a large base of support in the military and has long opposed military intervention in politics. His supporters were in the police, who appear to have remained loyal to Erdogan.
What happens now? In the immediate future, there will be a purge of the army. Trials and recriminations. Erdogan is secure. The governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) will rally round its leader and all of the opposition parties – including the Kurds – have strongly repudiated the coup attempt.
In the longer term? Many people – including Citizen Osman, the Turkish man in the street – will be asking themselves to what extent Erdogan is to blame. More specifically, the Turkish generals will be asking themselves whether this is a small group of malcontents or the tip of a much larger iceberg. If the latter, and it may well be, historical precedent says they will seek to secure the unity of the army by taking on board some of their subordinates’ positions. AKP (like politicians everywhere) will be questioning the origins of their grip on power.
Hitherto, Erdogan’s personality and political skill have been their trump card. Now? Remember there are still some sidelined big beasts in the AK Parti jungle, such as former President Abdullah Gul. They cannot be happy today and they are not going away. Finally, there are the business backers of the party. What is going to happen to the economy? They too will be questioning whether Erdogan remains the asset he was—especially given some bizarre statements he has made about monetary policy. The opposition of course, will see this as an opportunity. Which they will probably botch.
Elections are not imminent. The next presidential, general, and local votes are not due until 2019, so Erdogan is safe as president until then. I suspect, however, that his plans to change the constitution to provide for an all powerful president (with him in that role) are now dead. This coup attempt raises too many questions about his leadership. It will also weaken his hold on AK Parti and therefore the de facto, though unconstitutional, “Strong President” role he has assumed.
Erdogan is not a passive player in all this. He is a superb orator and has a large, solid base of support outside of Istanbul too. What he seems to have lost of late are his exceptional political instincts. The shock of the weekend’s events may drive him into a defensive and damaging crouch. Alternatively, it may break up the echo chamber he has been living in and remind him of the widely admired reformer he once was. Whatever happens next, the ball is very much in his court.
Grenville Byford is a writer and longtime commentator on Turkish politics. He is (full disclosure) personally acquainted with many present and former senior Turkish officials, but has not, as yet, discussed recent events with them.