x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A year after the failed coup, Erdogan tightens his control of Turkey's state structures

Many theories surround the July 15 coup in Turkey. The truth remains elusive, but the president's grip on power has become absolute

Turkish soldiers stand guard at the Taksim Square in Istanbul. July 15 marked the first anniversary of a failed coup attempt in Turkey. Sedat Suna / EPA
Turkish soldiers stand guard at the Taksim Square in Istanbul. July 15 marked the first anniversary of a failed coup attempt in Turkey. Sedat Suna / EPA

On the evening of July 15, 2016, the Turkish public was faced with an event that most had thought was a relic: an attempted coup. In the ensuing hours, the putsch disintegrated and the would-be plotters were rounded up. In the subsequent months, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on a rampage against real and mostly imaginary enemies, arresting tens of thousands and dismissing more than 150,000 from the public payroll without any semblance of due process.

In the process, Turkey was transformed. It has become a republic of fear. In most instances, individuals who have been detained have yet to see a judge. An arrest has, therefore, become a prison sentence.  

The government claims that almost all those who have been detained are followers of Fethullah Gülen, a cleric ensconced in Pennsylvania who was once Mr Erdogan's closest ally. In fact, Mr Gülen and Mr Erdogan together helped the ruling AKP consolidate its position. Starting in 2003, the two men worked assiduously to contain opposition from the country’s elites, civilian and military. Mr Erdogan introduced impressive reforms, including paradoxically the lifting restrictions on free speech, transforming the distribution of state services to a population long ignored by Ankara and successfully stewarded an economic boom. In 2007, the military tried to rein in Mr Erdogan. The latter called their bluff and called elections that proved to be death knell for the military’s political influence.

Ten years later, the Erdogan-Gülen alliance collapsed simply because they were the only ones left standing; all other sources of opposition had been emasculated. 

In 2013, secret recordings of government ministers and more troubling of Mr Erdogan himself allegedly engaged in corruption were leaked to the press. The suspected culprit was none other than the Gülen organisation that had built a formidable base within the police and the judiciary. Mr Erdogan successfully fought the allegations by arguing that this was an attempted coup.

For Mr Erdogan, the best defence is offence. He demonstrated this amply last year's failed coup. He used the public’s revulsion against the plotters and the death of 260 people to initiate a complete cleansing of state and society institutions. The Gülen organisation, identified as the main culprit, was declared an armed terror group.
There are, however, numerous questions about the coup, its orchestrators and implementation. Given the size of the Turkish military only a handful soldiers participated and many seemed to be just following orders. At first, people’s initial reaction to the events was that the security services were conducting a drill. In the most visible action, soldiers took control of one of the Bosphorus bridges, but then inexplicably they only occupied lanes going in one direction and allowed traffic in the opposite direction to flow unhindered.

In an atmosphere of complete chaos, aircraft buzzed the capital and the government claimed that these had also bombed the parliament building. Surprisingly, the damage appeared light. Soldiers who were sent to look for the president at his vacation residence did not have the proper address and most stupefying of all was that the plotters went to the state television station, the least watched channel, to make their pronouncement.

There has been no independent assessment of these events. Mr Erdogan directly or indirectly controls most of the press today, who simply repeat the pronouncements of the leadership or invent salacious conspiracy theories. Was the coup concocted at the last moment by some officers? Was it a conspiracy hatched by a coalition of opportunists? There are those who think that it was all a government-induced false flag operation.

One thing that is clear is that this attempt did not fit the pattern of previous coups in Turkey; four successful and two unsuccessful ones since 1960. Some 149 generals and admirals, 46 per cent of the Turkish general staff, were sacked overnight. Persons accused are subject to the forfeiture of their financial retirement, bank accounts, housing and given a life ban from working for the public sector. The accused have no hope of a fair trial. The judicial system has not only been decimated, but the president has complete control over judicial appointments. In other words, separation of powers no longer exists in Turkey.

To give you a sense of the absurdity of the charges leveled at people consider this: I was in Istanbul on the night of the coup, then a Woodrow Wilson Center member, running a workshop on Iran and its neighbours on an island 45 minutes from Istanbul. Once we realised the coup had failed we went back to our business. A few days later, we were all surprised to find out that I had organised this secret meeting to coordinate or lead the coup. This was an effort to link the US to the coup attempt and I was a convenient target as a former state department official. The stories they concocted were truly fantastic, including the presence among us of Scott Peterson, a death row inmate in California condemned for the brutal killing of his wife. Apparently, the US government had sent him to assassinate people. We had a Scott Peterson among us, the Christian Science Monitor correspondent, who had come as guest. The wonders of Google.

Despite Mr Erdogan’s attempts to control everything and dictate the discourse, there are signs that Turkey is deeply divided. The April constitutional referendum demonstrated that half of the population voted against the president. With reports of unprecedented irregularities it barely passed. Difficult days await Turkey.

Henri J Barkey is the Cohen professor of International Relations at Lehigh University