Government and governance, Law, National security | The World

2 August 2016

Turkish President Erdoğan’s post-coup push for power in an already highly-polarised Turkish society will do little to cool tensions, Murat Yurtbilir writes.

On the night of 15 July a group in the Turkish army launched a coup. It was a coup by a clique in the military initiated against both the rest of the military and also the government. The plotters took the Chief of the Army, General Akar, heads of the Land Force, Navy, Air Force and the Gendarmerie together with several senior military personnel as ransom. Akıncı Airbase in Ankara was the headquarters of the coup and the captive generals were carried to this base. Seemingly the coup makers were more powerful in the Gendarmerie and the Air Force though several units in the Navy and some from the Land Forces were involved.

Inviting people to the streets to participate in resistance against the coup, President Erdoğan was quick to denote the Islamist Gülen movement as the instigator of the plot. The resistance by the majority of the army and the police, the inability of the coup makers to arrest the President, Prime Minister and civilian authorities all around the country, accompanied by the mobilisation of the public through the minarets of the country’s 80,000 mosques rendered the attempt unsuccessful. The success came at a cost, however, with 264 killed, of which 173 were civilians, 62 police officers, five military personnel and 24 coup plotters. In addition, 1535 people including 50 coup plotters were wounded.

The following week saw a witch-hunt carried out by the government across the state apparatus, which ironically had been filled with followers of the Gülen movement by the very same AKP government during the first decade of its rule. AKP and the Gülen movement were allies against the secular establishment until late-2013. However, since the Gülen group’s leaking of Erdoğan’s corruption recordings in February 2014 in particular, they have been in a fierce political power struggle against each other over the spoils of their victory against the secular establishment.

After the National Security Council and cabinet meetings on 20 July  a state of emergency for three months was proclaimed. According to the Turkish Constitution, the state of emergency authorises the President to rule by decrees, bypassing the Parliament and the Cabinet; an all-powerful Presidency, long-campaigned for by Erdoğan. With his new sultanic powers, the President issued the first decree on July 23rd which extended the time limit on detention of those arrested from 24 hours to one month, meaning that they can remain in the hands of the police without being sent to the court for that whole time.

The decree also included shutting down 35 private hospitals, 1043 private education institutions including primary and secondary schools, high schools and also student dorms located all over Turkey, as well as 1229 foundations and associations and 19 trade unions. Fifteen private universities were added to the list, too. Meanwhile Turkey also announced a temporary suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights. On 27 July, the second presidential decree by Erdoğan targeted media outlets including 16 national and local TV channels and 45 newspapers.

As of 27 July, 44,530 civil servants had been discharged from various institutions. As expected, hardest hit has been the Ministry of Education, with approximately half of the dismissed personnel employed as teachers.

The use of the minarets of mosques all over the country for political mass mobilisation was unprecedented in Turkey, and it demonstrated that the regime will not hesitate to use the masses for their political purposes. Mass or ‘crowd’ psychology can easily transform into brutal actions similar to those of many past totalitarian regimes, like Nazi Germany. The severe mob beatings of conscripted soldiers on the Bosphorus Bridge, for example, may be the harbinger of future mass cruelty.

Another unprecedented move in these most recent events was the random shooting by the coup plotters towards the amassed crowds. Having experienced many previous coups, Turkish people were exposed for the first time to a coup attempt involving haphazard mass shooting.

For Erdoğan, learning of the coup on the critical night from his brother-in-law, was a sign of weakness. After being in government for the past 14 years, the President’s confession that neither the Turkish intelligence (MIT) nor any military source provided information to him on the night of the coup could prove to be a fatal flaw in his future manoeuvres.

Despite the arrests in the army being concentrated in the Gendarmerie and the Air Force, several units from the Land Forces are also in custody. The Turkish Second Army which is headquartered in Malatya, covers the Syrian and Iraqi borders and represents the main bulk of the Army in its fight against the PKK forces in the south-east of Turkey. The commander of the Second Army, Gen. Huduti, and most of the senior members of his garrison were arrested. It is striking that this group of soldiers was carrying out the city wars against the PKK over the last six months.

The military posts will be quickly filled through promotions in the upcoming Higher Military Council. However, Pandora’s Box has been opened with the attempt and the interventionist culture in the military, which was thought to be buried deep in the AKP years, has cropped up again. For the government it may be harder to find “trustworthy” military senior officers among the newly promoted generals in the near future. In order to increase civilian control over the military the Gendarmerie Command was made subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior by the second Presidential decree. However, as the main bulk of the Turkish Army will continue to be out of the civilian command, this measure does not immunise the country from future interventions. Facing this threat Erdoğan may press to render different branches of the army subordinate to diverse civilian bodies to avoid a single command by the Chief of the Army.

The fear post-coup is that an already authoritarian Erdoğan will be even more autocratic. He is expected to force constitutional change to create a Putin-style presidential system, first through the Parliament then via a referendum. Erdoğan’s push for more power in a highly polarised Turkish society will not cool the tensions, rather it will end up adding more fuel to the fire resulting in yet more instability.

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Yurtbilir, Murat. 2016. "A Putsch, Power-Grab, And Purge - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.