A little over a year ago, the streets of Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey erupted into chaos as a separatist faction of the Turkish military declared the overthrow of the government of President Erdogan. Tanks rolled up onto the Bosphorus bridge and into Ataturk international airport, while jet planes raced overhead, attempting to signal that the military, not the civilian government, was now in control. But within a few short hours, the coup had essentially fallen apart, and president Erdogan remained in power. Since then, much has changed in Turkey. This week, we'll take a look at the fate of Turkey one year after its failed military coup.
As we have covered previously, military coups are not exactly a new phenomenon in Turkey. Whenever the military believes that a Turkish ruler has overstepped his authority and puts the secular nature of the country at risk, they usually intervene for a few years (and sometimes longer). This is part of a tradition started by the nation's first president (and the founder of the modern Turkish nation) Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk, a well-renowned military leader from the First World War, overthrew the Ottoman sultans and established the new nation under the founding principles of representative government, secularism, and European-style values.
Early in the morning on July 15th, 2016, a rouge faction of the Turkish military began the ill-fated coup attempt. With Erdogan traveling out of the country and the military seemingly in control of Turkey's major cities, it appeared at first like the president's days were numbered. But the military faction behind the coup was relatively small and lacked the backing of the full military. Erdogan quickly urged his followers to take to the streets, using the mosques to issue his pleas via the call-to-prayer towers and an awkward FaceTime interview via a cell phone broadcasted on live TV. In the end, his supporters rallied and, after nearly 200 (mostly civilian) casualties, the coup instigators eventually surrendered.
In response, president Erdogan brought all factions of the government together and addressed the grievances against him in a thoughtful and enlightened message to the public. Just kidding. Erdogan did what any aspiring dictator would do and proceeded to purge the government and civil society of anyone who opposes him. He immediately cracked down on all dissent within the media, fired hundreds of thousands of professors, military officers, and government workers, replacing them with more loyal people in the process. And going even further, he solidified his increasing power by pushing for a popular referendum that granted him near universal control over the government. The referendum campaign, which passed by an extremely slim margin, was hardly a fair contest however. The opposition movement received almost no media coverage, while most demonstrations and political action groups were intimidated or forcibly disbanded.
So what's next for Turkey? Erdogan's rise from figurehead president to near-dictator has deeply divided the population. Nearly half of the country sees his rise as a direct threat to democracy (and they usually aren't too thrilled with his strong support for Islamist political groups either). While the other half supports his decisiveness, authority, and his strong stance against terrorism and the Kurdish separatist movements. Though many on the right and left of Turkish politics are starting to band together in opposition, it may be too late for them to mount an effective campaign against his reelection in 2019. As the purges continue, fewer and fewer people remain in positions of authority who are willing to challenge the president. All of this spells disaster for the short-term prospects of Turkey's democratic tradition.
But Turkey's politics aren't only changing domestically, they are also altering events on the world stage. With Erdogan at its head, Turkey has developed an increasingly close relationship with Russia. This is complicating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, which was formed in direct opposition to the former Soviet Union. With Turkey's foreign policy beginning to diverge from that of the other NATO members, it may become a liability for the most powerful security alliance in history.
In all, Turkey's authoritarian turn is not just concerning for democracy and human rights in Turkey. It could signal a growing problem of democratic backsliding throughout the world. Nations like Poland are showing troubling signs of turning toward authoritarian power. While others throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are grappling with the forces of populism, sectarian violence, and general political instability. But the problem with turning towards authoritarianism in times of political paralysis and crisis is that it's a short term fix to a long term problem. The problems that allow authoritarians to rise to power usually fade, but their power almost always remains.