How Erdogan Pulled Off the Perfect Coup and Could Ruin Turkey

For one thing: Firing 60,000 soldiers and police with knowledge of weapons and tactics is just asking for more violence, and economic decline.

Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey May 4, 2016
Umit Bekta, Reuters

Every general with few wars to fight and time on his hands to think about power or self-aggrandizement knows the recipe for staging a coup d’etat.

You wait for the leader you’re toppling to be out of the country. Ifhe’s not, you make sure you take him prisoner in the first hour or so.

You dispatch the troops at dawn so that the country awakens to a fait accompli. You seize control of major transportation infrastructure, like bridges and airports. Other troops are dispatched to take over television and radio stations.

Since it’s logistically impossible to have tens of thousands of Twitter users tweet pro-new-regime messages at gunpoint, you just shut down the Internet.  You arrest any and all suspected enemies, ask questions later.

Then, you declare emergency rule. You form a council of allies to govern by decree "until democracy can be restored," declare yourself supreme leader, and then stay in office until you die of old age or another colonel starts eyeing the presidential palace.

Turkey’s putschists failed to follow the rules, but strangely enough, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pulled off a perfect one.

The perfect coup

Like the textbook putschist, the Turkish leader called out his troops, in this case supporters of his AKP party. He captured media outlets, shut down social media, arrested tens of thousands of his enemies, whether they were generals, journalists or college deans, and imposed emergency rule. He did this all in the name of saving Turkish democracy, Erdogan explains.

To say that Erdogan couldn’t stage a coup because he was already in power misses the point:  He overthrew a democratic regime and is on his way to replacing it with a personal autocracy.

But, speaking of recipes, Erdogan is assembling all the ingredients for a future revolution. What better way to foment violent resistance to the government than by firing 60,000 army officers and policemen with knowledge of weapons and tactics? Stir in journalists, teachers and college administrators who have been purged to provide an intellectual and propaganda corps. Then spice it with civil servants who know the inner workings of the government. 

A woman and the boy with ribbons on their heads with the name of the Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes part in an anti coup rally at Taksim square in Istanbul, Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Petros Karadjias, AP

It’s quite clear that such a huge number of people couldn’t have been directly involved in the failed coup, which after all lasted a few hours and was seen down by unarmed civilians. Erdogan's purge is motivated by revenge, a laundering process driven by paranoia and self-aggrandizement  rather than savvy politics, much less with the thought of starting a healing process for a divided Turkey.

Not quite a victory for democracy

A lot of these people are now languishing in jails, reportedly being tortured in some case; a few may be executed if the government’s threats to restore the death penalty are kept. But the Erdogan enemies list is too long to lock them all up and he has blocked all the non-violent outlets a political opposition can use. Give it a few weeks, and the first gunshots will be fired or a bomb thrown in the name of the anti-Erdogan revolution and the war will have begun.

Erik Myerson, a Swedish academic who studies the economic impact of coups, wrote in the Harvard Business Review last week that economically speaking Turkey will be better off under Erdogan than under the army. His analysis of the history of coups toppling democratic governments since 1950 shows that they typically erase 1%-1.3% annually from the growth of per capita income in the decade that follows. That’s because the new military leaders often reverse needed economic reforms, push their countries into deeper debt and cut social spending.

To Myerson’s credit, he recognizes that Erdogan’s success in seeing off the threat is not an unbridled victory for democracy and sound economic policy. But he missed the point that there were two coups, and Turkey is going to pay the same price or worse for Erdogan staying put in the presidential palace as much as it would have with some general were wandering its 1,000 rooms.

The markets speak out

The evidence is already there in response of the financial markets, where they lira and stock market plunged.

Counterintuitively, the markets were telling Turkey that the coup didn’t have a happy ending.

Theoretically, a government celebrated for its economics, if not its politics, saw off the threat. But, of course, the markets know that’s not what happened – and that will constitute the first big blow for Turkey: It is heavily reliant on inflowing foreign capital to keep the economy going. But it is hard to imagine the spigot flowing so generously now when Turkey is no longer politically stable or showing strong rates of economic growth.

"The commitment is that we will maintain sound, rational macroeconomic policies. We will stick to market economy. There has never been, and will never be, consideration of any other model," said Turkey’s economic czar, Mehmet Simsek, shortly after the coup was put down.

Pro-government supporters protest on Istanbul's iconic Bosporus Bridge, late Thursday, July 21, 2016, after Turkish lawmakers approved a 3-month state of emergency, giving President Recep Tayyip Erdogan new powers that would allow him to expand a crackdown.
Petros Giannakouris, AP

But the fact is the market economy Simsek was lauding was already being undermined by Erdogan’s creeping autocracy even before the coup. Market economies aren’t just about free enterprise but about rule of law, honest and efficient government, and in the age of knowledge economies, the freedom to think and speak out.

But the Turkey Erdogan envisages is one where loyalty to the leader is paramount (not to Islam: after all his prime target is the Islamic group led by Muhammed Fethullah Gulen). You won’t be able to teach at a high school or a university without demonstrating fealty to the president. Nor will you be able to write for, appear on own a major media outlet if you’re not in the Erdogan camp. Only politically loyal businesses will have access to government contracts and those who aren’t may risk being taken over or destroyed. 

Turkey isn’t about to become a totalitarian state, but it's likely to resemble Putin’s Russia where thought and speech are constrained, and the best and the brightest are fleeing.

Russia at least has oil. Turkey has no natural resources sufficient to keep it afloat. It has to get by on the capacity of its businesspeople and human capital.

Like China, Turkey made the leap from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, but if it is going to keep growing it has to finesse the next leap to a knowledge economy where innovation founded on free expression and meritocracy is what drives business. In Erdogan’s Turkey, the foundation is no longer there.