Which way to go?
So much has been written about the failed coup attempt in Turkey during the past two weeks but it is still not clear as to what actually caused the plotters to attempt toppling an elected government that was not only successful but also popular. Going by the policies and ideology of the Erdogan government, these should be the ‘secular’ elements within the army that may have felt the need to do away with it. Strangely, however, the government is pointing the finger at the holier-than-thou religious spoilers, like one of its former ally Fethullah Gulen’s affiliated or inspired individuals and organisations, etc.
If the government’s allegations are true, then this may turn out to be the real pointer, telling the story of Turkey’s journey on the conservative Islam’s path under Erdogan’s leadership and how far it has gone that way.
For a student of politics, such a coup attempt was more likely to end in failure. Most of the factors that could facilitate a military coup were not there. If there were some, those were against such a misadventure. The reasons for its failure can be divided into two three broad categories; 1) technical, 2) economic, and 3) political.
On the technical side, the foremost amongst the factors was the global statistics about the military coups that didn’t favour the Turkish plotters. Brian Klaas said in Foreign Affairs (July 17) that coups have almost gone out of fashion internationally in the post-cold war era; with an average of 13 plots per year during the 70s, the number has gone down to 4 per year today. Likewise the chances of success have also dwindled from fifty-fifty during the 50s, 60s and 70s to a little less than one-in-four, he argues.
The second biggest reason was the division inside the Turkish army which worked in favour of the AKP government. Bereft of a unanimous approval of the top brass, the conspiracy had to be hatched somewhere in the ‘middle’, thus increasing the chances of its failure. Coupled with the amateurish execution, the exercise ended like an ‘amateur hour’. They failed to nab the top civilian leadership or disrupt communication between them and the people and the result was obvious; instead of the plotters, Erdogan and his comrades fired the first salvo by giving a call to the people that enabled their supporters to take to the streets and resist the unconstitutional change.
Economic and political factors that didn’t favour the coup plotters are in fact conjoined. Erdogan’s rule since 2002, first as prime minister and then as president has brought enormous economic development to the country, literally creating a new middle class. Segment of society that forms this new, mostly urbanised middle class is now a supporter of the his party and ultimately of the civilian rule. Together with the huge rural population which is with the AKP due to the party’s religious orientation, this rural-urban mix provides a formidable political support base which the plotters seem to have ignored when planning their misadventure.
Historically speaking, ‘Kemalism’, the secular ideology of the Turkey since the creation of the republic, didn’t give much to the people in economic terms. The civilians who now rule Turkey don’t accept the policies run under the Kemalism banner as secularism; they term it laicism (or militant secularism). Though, the early signs of political Islam in today’s Turkey can be traced back to 1994, it was formally introduced by Necmittin Erbakan – considered to be the mentor of current Turkish model – when he was elected prime minister in 1996. The real political and economic change, however, occurred when Adalet ve Kalkemna Patisi (AKP or Justice and Development Party) won elections and formed government.
AKP thus was the product of a ‘repressive’ political system which did little to improve the living conditions of the people. Ironically, that non-delivering or ‘repressive’ system was sold to the people as Ataturk’s secularism and since the army establishment was at the forefront of the elite classes that imposed and protected this system, it was but natural to identify it with the repression, injustice and economic stagnation which that system entailed.
Erdogan, after coming into power, used his previous experience as Mayor of Istanbul for result oriented policies and concentrated of economic uplift, besides methodically changing the direction of the country from Kemalism to political Islam. People welcomed both of his ideas – or policies, if you may like to call it. And this is no rocket science to know why. They were experiencing economic prosperity and a great social transformation with a positive shift towards urbanisation in the countryside coupled with a large scale migration to larger urban centers. And they attributed all this to the government policies of shunning Ataturk’s secularism and embracing political Islam as the new guiding light for the state.
Though it is not our subject here, the emphasis on political Islam – though Turkey officially claims it has successfully diverted emphasis from ‘political’ to ‘cultural’ Islam to encourage religious moderation – has long-term implications for the Turkish state and society (we will dwell upon it some other time). Introduction of Political Islam in the education system, accommodation of overtly religious individuals in official echelons and the appearance of religious/moral vigilantes on the streets to impose ‘true Islamic values’ plus the Turkish foreign policy shift, pivoting itself away from the West, and towards the Middle East are some of the reasons that have resulted in internal divisions in the Turkish society which was used to liberal/progressive ideas and lifestyle in their daily lives. This also is the most likely cause of the frustration among the members of the armed forces – which hitherto had arrogated to itself the role of protector of a secular Turkey – which resulted in the abortive coup attempt.
But now, when the coup has failed and Erdogan has survived the attempt with the majority of the Turkish people behind him, what are the prospects of democracy, liberal/secular values and Turkey’s march towards progress and religious moderation?
Though the coup didn’t succeed in toppling a democratically elected, popular government, it may prove to more than a double jeopardy for which Turkey is likely to be punished again and again and for a long time to come.
There is no doubt that Erdogan has dictatorial tendencies and an ambition to cling on to power for as long as he can. The switch over from premiership to presidency and his quest to amend the constitution to make the president more powerful are just but only glimpses of his long-lasting desire to be there; and as someone to be reckoned with. If there was any hurdle in his way to become all-in-all, the failed putsch has cleared his way of any and every hindrance. The crackdown on political opponents and the media are pointers of more bad things to come.
The project of introducing and implementing political Islam is also fraught with potential dangers which the current leadership seemed least bother about up till now; and about which it won’t be bothered at all from now on. Though it is impossible to accurately predict about the future, especially the march of history, it is not difficult sometimes to have a fairly good idea about some of the things that may be coming in the not-so-distant a future.
The fact is that Turkey has taken a turn that is so crucial and substantive that it will be hard to undo the changes that it may bring in its wake. Turkey may not be the same again. And the future seems bleak.