Analysis

Sleeping With the Enemy: The Turkish Opposition’s Terrible Dilemma

Opposition leaders had no choice but to support their bitter rival and back 'democracy.' Erdogan may soon be able to rewrite the constitution.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan lift up his portrait as they celebrate with flags in Ankara, Turkey, July 16, 2016.
Tumay Berkin, Reuters

The patriotic coalition of the Turkish opposition parties, whose leaders came together to condemn the coup attempt and support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or “democracy,” put themselves in a difficult position. It turns out Turkey doesn’t need elections to know where “the people” are heading.

The story of the coup its planning and tactical failures still remains to be told. We still don’t know how so many commanders and soldiers attempted a coup without the Turkish intelligence services knowing. But one thing is clear: The streets are ruled by supporters of the Erdogan regime, and now all that’s left is to hold an election quickly to take full advantage of the events and rewrite the constitution.

It’s not just the street that’s well under Erdogan’s control, but also the military and police, except for a few battalions that tried to overthrow the government. So much so that it’s doubtful there’s anyone left to cleanse from the top brass.

At issue are some 3,000 judges, prosecutors and senior officials in the justice system alongside around 1,500 soldiers and officers who’ll be dismissed and put on trial. Not that this is anything new in Turkey.

About a year ago, the country was shocked by firings of legal officials who had exposed an enormous corruption scandal in which ministers and their relatives and it seems members of Erdogan’s own family too were involved. The arrest of journalists and the takeover of newspapers and websites is nothing new in Turkey either.  

Erdogan didn’t need the coup attempt to take control of the public debate and the legal system, despite what conspiracy theorists might say. The ones who have to do some soul-searching are his political rivals, the opposition chiefs, the businessmen who have suffered under his regime, the journalists and the intellectuals who have felt a steamroller of pressure. Also on this list is the secular public that sees Erdogan as a danger to the nation’s character.

In the past two elections, the opposition failed to constrain Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party or force it to build a coalition with them. And since 2002, when the party won its first sweeping victory, the political and public opposition has had a hard time providing a convincing alternative that can win a majority.

The coup attempt painted these political rivals into an impossible corner. As supporters of the secular democracy, they in theory should have supported a coup that would remove the man they consider a dictator disguised as an elected president.

But it’s exactly because of their banner of liberal democracy that they can’t support a military coup. Such support would mean cutting themselves off from the patriotic consensus at a time when Turkey is under attack by the Islamic State and Kurdish terrorists.

Quite quickly, Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and other senior party officials managed to paint the conspirators as enemies of the Turkish people, the country and democracy. The media, including outlets that regularly criticize Erdogan, bought this depiction and portrayed the movement of Fethullah Gulen as the force behind the coup attempt. This is the same media recently charged with betraying the homeland, weakening the nation’s foundations and doing the bidding of “outside forces” bent on harming Turkey.

The opposition to the coup attempt in the name of democracy may be a fitting cover, but it would be interesting to see how the opposition leaders would have responded if it had been a military coup in the form Turkey has known over the decades.

If the military leadership had ordered Erdogan to leave his magnificent palace, if the chief of staff had taken over the prime minister’s office and the presidential palace and begun appointing new ministers, it’s possible the public reaction would have been different.

But the minute it became clear that the military didn’t stand behind the conspirators, and especially, when the conspirators appeared to represent a sectional movement with Gulen at its head, it couldn’t be considered representing liberal democracy, despite Gulen’s popularity. Even Erdogan’s political rivals couldn’t have granted the coup public legitimacy.

And this is how, despite the aspiration to remove Erdogan from power, the opposition understood that its support for the attempted coup would quash its legitimacy.

Here lies the difference between the 2013 military takeover in Egypt and the Turkish attempt. Since January 2011, the Egyptian military has been seen as a full partner of the revolutionaries. The military leveraged the protests into a political move and ousted President Hosni Mubarak the same way the same army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi two years later “in the name of the people and for the sake of democracy.”

In Egypt, the liberal movements needed the military’s help to achieve the goal of overthrowing the regime. But as in Turkey, the liberal movements and the secular opposition learned that they weren’t strong enough to handle a well-organized movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood. And in Turkey the opposition was dealing with the Justice and Development Party with its powerful apparatus.

The Turkish military, which was once considered a partner of the liberal and secular public, has become over the past five years a government army, so it can no longer be a partner in revolutions. When this is the new balance of power, Turkey’s liberal movements have no one to provide them with the legitimacy that would let them carry out their political dreams.

The paradox is that even more than in the past, the opposition will now need to prove its patriotism so as not to be considered enemies of democracy, after Erdogan has turned into the icon of Turkish democracy thanks to the conspirators.