Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan called Friday night’s attempted government takeover by a faction within the Turkish military “an act of treason,” and vowed that the coup-plotters would “pay a heavy price” for their actions.
“This insurgency is a blessing from Allah, because it will allow us to purge the military” from mutineers, Erdogan said in a statement from Istanbul, shortly after arriving there early Saturday morning.
Earlier Friday night, a faction within the Turkish armed forces calling itself the
“Peace at Home Council” said they had seized power, taken over the government, and declared martial law. They deployed forces onto the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s largest city and capital, respectively, and closed two major bridges leading into Istanbul.
A Turkish national intelligence spokesman told AP and CNN that the coup attempt had been “repelled” and “defeated” by early Saturday morning. Forty-two people were reportedly killed in the clashes, according to Turkish officials. More than 120 soldiers have reportedly been arrested.
As many analysts have noted on Twitter, Erdogan’s statements from Istanbul seem like a clear sign of what’s to come as the leader — whose rule has become increasingly authoritarian over the past year — prepares to crack down on the military he has long perceived as a threat to his rule.
“Presuming they fail, Erdogan authoritarianism gets a lot stronger,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, tweeted earlier on Friday.
Nadav Pollak, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, echoed Bremmer’s prediction.
“If Erdogan was looking for excuses to strengthen his authoritarian rule, he just found a lot of them in Turkey.”
As such, the coup attempt “presents a dilemma to the United States and European governments,” Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times on Friday.
“Do you support a nondemocratic coup,” or an “increasingly nondemocratic leader?”
Drifting toward ‘one-man rule’
Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2003. After his reign came to an end in 2014, he ran for president, which, until then, was more of a ceremonial role. Over the past year, however, Erdogan has attempted to significantly expand his presidential powers in the wake of roughly 14 terrorist attacks on Turkish soil.
“Never before in this system has one person amassed so much power in his hands as Erdogan has,” Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told
The Washington Post in May.
“Turkey has visibly turned into a one-man rule,” Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider shortly after then-Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned under pressure in May.
“Erdogan dominates the whole playing field, and he is refusing the share power with anyone.”
Davutoglu’s “ambivalence” about a proposed change to Turkey’s constitution that would “
formalise the powerful role of the president that Erdogan has forged” contributed significantly to the tension that ultimately forced Davutoglu’s hand, Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Business Insider at the time.
He added: “I don’t recall an episode like this before, though of course there were four coups in Turkey. This is significantly different, however.”
Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkey’s press and government critics, meanwhile, has prompted repeated condemnation from the US and the broader international community.
“His efforts to veer toward Islamism and crack down on the news media and opposition groups have left American officials caught between their instincts to support democracy and their reliance on an increasingly authoritarian leader,” David Sanger, the New York Times’ national security correspondent, wrote on Friday.
That is the political context in which the attempted coup erupted on Friday night — an attempt on Erdogan’s power that at least one foreign policy analyst contends is the direct result of the president’s “broken promises and deepening paranoia.”
‘Was a coup inevitable? No,” Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy. “But those plotting it presumably justify their action in the belief that they are saving Turkey from a leadership increasingly out-of-touch and ideological.”
“Erdoğan promised to rule on behalf of all Turks, but increasingly he does not. He promised to repair the economy, but corruption is rife, the currency shaky, and a recession could be on the horizon. He promised peace but his combative policies increasingly isolated Turkey in both the West and the Middle East. He promised security, but Turks fear recent bombings are just the tip of the iceberg. At the same time, the coup plotters may believe that Erdoğan’s consolidation of power makes this their last chance.”
‘The military is not his friend’
Intriguingly, the government’s relationship with the military — long plagued by mutual suspicion and mistrust — seemed to be improving over the past year, if not longer.
Istanbul-based journalist Noah Blaser laid it out well in Foreign Policy:
“Turkey’s government and military have appeared ever-closer allies in recent years. In 2014, a Turkish court released scores of senior military officials jailed in the Ergenekon coup plot trial, a case which formerly helped Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reign in the power of the military. And earlier this year, Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals overturned all convictions in the Ergenekon case, ruling that the alleged shadowy network never existed at all.”
Blaser noted that Ankara has given the military virtually “free reign” to battle insurgents linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast when a peace treaty broke down in mid-2015, granting them “greater immunity from legal prosecution amid accusations of security force rights violations.”
As Cengiz Candar, a Turkey expert writing for Al-Monitor, pointed out, however, the warming ties stemmed primarily from a relationship of convenience.
“It was an alliance,” Candar wrote. “But the military is not his friend — not emotionally, not institutionally, not ideologically.”
Erdogan has shown he is “willing to spurn even his closest of AKP allies” in the name of amending the constitution and strengthening his executive authority,
Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies told Business Insider in May.
“It is clear that Erdogan is tightening his grip on absolute power,” Schanzer said.
“The democratic political infrastructure in Turkey is now eroding alongside the eroding freedoms of the press, judiciary, and religion,” he added. “Turkey is backsliding further and further away from the principles upon which it was founded.”
Even so, Erdogan was democratically elected, and mass protests against the military coup on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara late Friday night and early Saturday morning showed that Turkish citizens still prefer his government’s rule to a military takeover.
“The AKP and Erdogan might be very polarising and might have alienated an important segment of society, but they still have the backing of almost 50% of the population,” Dr. Gonul Tol, the Director of Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, told Business Insider on Friday.
Even if they viewed Erdogan as a lesser evil than the military, however, Turkish citizens are evidently aware of how their country got to this point.
“Turkey has been polarised and brought to the brink of war by one man, Erdogan,” Halil Aktas, a protester who had taken to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, told Foreign Policy. “This will not continue a single day more.”
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