The Failure of Turkey's Coup: Now It’s the Omnipotent Erdogan’s Turn for a Revolution

The conspirators have underrated the extent of support Turkey's president enjoys, and it appears the public preferred undemocratic democracy to military rule. For Erdogan, the failed coup could be an important leverage on the way to change the constitution.

Turkish citizens stand on a damaged Turkish military APC that was attacked by protesters in a street near the Turkish military headquarters in Ankara, Turkey, Saturday, July 16, 2016.
Hussein Malla / AP

The attempted coup in Turkey might be just the powerful leverage Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to fulfill his aspiration to become an omnipotent president and carry out a constitutional coup. After two elections last year, in which he was unable to attain a large enough majority in parliament, the third such campaign, which will take advantage of the anti-coup sentiment of the public and popular anger over the attempt, will finally allow Erdogan to amend the constitution as he wishes.

This would mean broad executive powers that would turn the president into the executive arm of the state. He would no longer be the ceremonial figure he is now - albeit one who enjoys important powers such as the right to appoint the prime minister and the army chief of staff, but still a far cry from the American model.  

Erdogan’s aspirations were significantly enhanced before dawn on Saturday in two essential arenas: Most of the army and the police came out against the conspirators, arresting hundreds of officers and soldiers and thousands of the followers of the exiled cleric, the president’s sworn rival, Fethullah Gulen. At the same time, opponents of the coup controlled the streets along with Erdogan’s supporters. The latter were supported by the opposition, which declared their aversion to the coup.

These arenas revealed the failure of the conspirators to properly assess the extent of potential support for a coup. They apparently believed that 60 percent of the public, the percentage that does not back Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, would support the conspirators, that the ground force battalions would join the armored corps and some of the air force, and that the police would not dare to come out against the army. From a military standpoint it seemed that the failure also stemmed from the need to maintain secrecy until the last minute. That made it impossible to lay broad groundwork in the army; unlike previous military coups, this time it was not a coup by the army but rather by a group within the army, which does not represent the army as a whole.

In the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, the army usually warned the government of its intention to take over if the government did not rule the country properly. This time, the army’s chief of staff Hulusi Akar was taken hostage in what was considered an act of mutiny. The result was that from the beginning the conspirators created a split in the army that worked against them.

The failure was not only tactical but ideological as well. In the previous coups the army relied on its mission as protector of the constitution, as formulated by the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a mission that is enshrined in the constitution. Those previous coups had reasons that could be clearly seen, such as the waves of violence in the 1960s or the loss of government control in early 1970. But this time there was no ideological basis for the coup, which met no immediate need the public could identify with.

Turkey is suffering from terror attacks; its economy, particularly tourism, has been hit hard; about 3 million Syrian and other refugees are living in the country and the violence against its Kurdish citizens has become routine. 

But Turkey has managed to maneuver fairly well among all these factors. The economy is still considered a success story, certainly in comparison to the deep crisis before the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party. The refugee agreement with Europe, which is expected to bring in about 6 billion euros, is also considered an achievement. Reconciliation with Israel and Russia and hints of reconciliation with Egypt are blunting criticism by the opposition, which claims that Erdogan has isolated Turkey. These successes, which were supported by high numbers of votes for Erdogan personally and for his party, made him an irreplaceable president (and previously, prime minister). Lacking a popular opposition leader or competing candidate within the ruling party, which is run like a military unit, Erdogan’s political rivals believe that for the foreseeable future he cannot be replaced by democratic means.

This might have been the basis for the attempted coup. However, it clashed with public sentiment, which was stronger. People might hate Erdogan but they hate a coup more. In that kind of atmosphere the army cannot be thought of as the savior of the state, especially not after 14 years of successful civilian rule. Moreover, the army, particularly military intelligence, are under internal scrutiny that does not always reach the media. Detractors accuse military intelligence of failing to find the perpetrators of the terror attacks, failure to uproot the Islamic State in Turkey, and of providing aid to ISIS. They mainly accuse military intelligence of fighting a dirty and violent war against the country's Kurdish citizens.

The fighting against the Kurds and Erdogan’s policies toward Syria are at the core of disputes within the army itself. Furthermore, the army, which Erdogan has brutally distanced from politics and purged from those believed to be opponents, is considered loyal to the president. Hence, military government would not ensure the change his opponents seek.

Erdogan’s image as the leader of an undemocratic democracy has grown stronger in recent years, after he shook up the justice system, dismissed hundreds of judges and prosecutors and installed the system he wanted for judicial appointments. His struggle against the free press, the takeover by his associates of newspapers and television stations, the arrest and detention of journalists, persecution of his critics on social media and his harsh statements against his political opponents have closed off channels of expression of his opponents and kindled the anger of Western countries against him. But when the public is given the change to topple an autocratic government and replace it with military rule, the military option is perceived as more dangerous.

After the failure of the coup it seems that the army, though most of it stood with the government, will be hit hard, not only by Erdogan, who has already began an extensive purge, but by the public and even by opponents of the president, who tend to agree with ousted Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who said: “Turkey is not some country in Africa where the army takes over the government.” There is more than a hint in that statement of what happened in Egypt three years ago, when the army toppled a democratically elected president.

Erdogan is now expected to take a series of steps to stabilize the country and show the West that he has control. The economy might be a victim of the attempted coup and so it is important to calm the stock market, to renew flights as soon as possible and move ahead reconciliation with countries in the Middle East, including Israel. Erdogan will have to reckon not only with the participants in the coup, but also with the intelligence community, which did not know about it. For Erdogan this will be an opportunity to bend the whole army to civilian law, and perhaps also to change its structure and the type of tasks it is given.