Turkey in context

More than ten years ago I had a great student (who is hopefully reading this), who did a senior honor’s thesis on Turkey with another professor.  That’s obviously not my thing, but I remember reading it and discussing it with him.  I was fascinated to learn about how the Turkish military had traditionally seen themselves as guardians of democracy.

When I went on-line yesterday afternoon, I could literally not find any commentary that mentioned this– seemingly very important– fact.  Fortunately, Zach Beauchamp’s piece in Vox last night explains:

The coup leaders, claiming to speak for the entire Turkish Armed Forces, said they’d done so in the name of protecting democracy — despite the fact that Erdogan and his party were democratically elected.

“Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedom,” the statement said.

This may sound crazy to American ears, but it makes at least a little sense in the Turkish context. The modern Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a former military officer deeply committed to a form of democratic nationalism and hardline secularism now called Kemalism.

The Turkish military sees itself as the guardian of Kemalism, and has overthrown four Turkish governments since 1960 in the name of protecting Turkey’s democracy from chaos and Islamic influence. Each time afterwards, the military has returned the country to democracy — though in a degraded form.

Erdogan is clearly a threat to Turkish democracy and secularism. He leads the AKP, a moderate Islamist party that has “reformed” Turkish schools along Islamist lines. He’s cracked down on Turkey’s freedom of the press and pushed constitutional changes that would consolidate dangerous amounts of power in the president’s hands.

The military had been shockingly quiet about these developments in recent years, leading many to believe that Erdogan had successfully cowed them into submission. But this coup attempt suggests — given the stated rationale of the coup-launchers — that some in the military are taking up its traditional role as enforcers of Kemalist orthodoxy. [emphasis mine]

Yet it’s looking likely they’ll fail. According to Naunihal Singh, a political scientist at the Air War College, coups tend to succeed when their leaders convince other members of the military that they will inevitably succeed. If people think resistance is futile, even regime loyalists will just go with the flow.

That doesn’t appear to be happening. Reports on the ground in Turkey suggest that large portions of the military have sided with Erdogan. So, too, have street demonstrators and leading politicians — including Erdogan opponents. The New York Times reports that Erdogan has returned to Istanbul, which he wouldn’t do unless it was safe.

The reporting this morning definitely looks as though the coup has failed, but I wish the reporting yesterday (and the on-line commentary I sought out yesterday from IR scholars who should presumably know better) had included this very important context.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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