Is it time to celebrate democracy in Turkey?

Published: July 18, 2016
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People demonstrating in support of President Erdogan in Turkey on Saturday. Photo: Daniel Mihailescu/Agence France-Presse

I have lately been a frequent critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his increasingly authoritarian government. But a military regime, like the kind a group of coup-plotters tried to bring about on Friday night, would have been not only illegitimate but also far more repressive and bloody. The people of Turkey, including many of Mr Erdogan’s political opponents, rightly rejected that.

So has democracy carried the day in Turkey? It’s still too early to tell.

There are many lessons to be taken from this astonishing episode. First of all, this is not the old Turkey anymore, where tanks could take the streets and the military could scare people into bowing down, as it did in 1960, 1971, 1980 and again in 1997, when its leaders decided that elected governments were not in line with the country’s founding vision. No, this time people took to the streets and confronted the rebellious soldiers. Perhaps more decisive was the fact that a majority of the military, the police and other state institutions didn’t go along with the plot.

There was another striking aspect of the long night: It disproved some of Mr Erdogan’s paranoid narratives. For years the president, an Islamist, has accused secular forces of plotting to undermine or overthrow him. But when the tanks rolled out, the opposition parties, business associations and mainstream news media all took a clear stance against the attempted takeover.

In fact, it was CNNTurk, a television channel that belongs to the media group that Mr Erdogan’s supporters attacked two years ago for “insulting the president,” that played a major role in helping him. In the heat of the moment, Mr Erdogan, speaking from an undisclosed location, appeared on CNNTurk screens via his iPhone’s FaceTime app. He called on the people to resist and this, many believe, was a decisive moment in averting the coup.

All of this shows that Turkish society has internalised electoral democracy, and Turkey’s secularists, despite their objections to the Erdogan government’s Islamism, seek solutions in democratic politics. (Egypt’s secularists, unfortunately, didn’t learn this. They cheered on a military coup three years ago that resulted in a far more violently repressive government.)

At the same time, Friday’s coup attempt makes clear that Mr Erdogan’s longstanding worries about a “parallel state” have not been unfounded after all. Yes, most of the conspiracy theories Mr Erdogan and his supporters have peddled recently — about Western or Zionist plots — are more fiction than fact. But as the famous quote says,

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

The attempted coup will also force Turkey to reckon with the Gulenist movement, a secretive Islamist group that the government immediately pointed to as responsible for the insurrection on Friday night. The Gulenists have long had a clandestine presence within the judiciary and the police. For its part, the movement and its leader, the Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gulen, denied being behind the plot, but Mr Gulen also admitted that he could not be sure his followers were not involved.

It is not just the government but also many independent, secular observers who are unconvinced by this denial. The Gulenist movement is widely suspected of infiltrating and plotting to exploit state institutions for its sectarian purposes. Its involvement in the coup attempt seems very likely and the American government should take note.

What will come next in Turkey?

First, there will be a major crackdown on the coup plotters and the Gulenist movement. Already, some 6,000 people have been arrested, including some high-ranking judges who are suspected of Gulenist affiliations. Some figures in the government are suggesting that they want to bring back the death penalty.

Of course, the government has the right to pursue the people involved in this attack on Turkey and bring them to justice. But this must be justice with due process — not a ferocious witch hunt. Moreover, while the state should be purged of pro-coup elements, this shouldn’t be used as a pretext to pack state institutions, in particular the judiciary, with Erdogan partisans. (Already more than 2,000 judges have been fired.)

One thing is certain: This experience will make Mr Erdogan more powerful and more popular. He has emerged as the victorious defender of the nation against a conspiracy — a real one this time — and his bond with voters has deepened. Less certain is how the president will use his power.

If Mr Erdogan is prudent, he will appreciate the support he received from the secular opposition — including the main pro-Kurdish party — and stop seeing them as his enemies. This could be an opportunity for national unity and reconciliation after years of divisive rule. His government has already begun a pragmatic shift in foreign policy in recent weeks, improving damaged relations with Israel and Russia. If the government follows the same pragmatic course inside Turkey, the country can move towards a better future.

But if Mr Erdogan uses his newfound power to build a more authoritarian political system and to increase the power of the presidency and undermine checks and balances, Turkish democracy is in jeopardy. If he keeps the country on the divisive course of the past few years, the near future looks grim. Mr Erdogan will have averted all the coups and won all the wars. But the peace that Turkey needs will still be far away.

This post originally appeared here.

Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol

Mustafa Akyol is the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Bairooni Haath

    Erdogan will turn Turkey into another Pakistan with Press censorship, Minority persecution, Blasphemy laws and honor killings!Recommend

  • vinsin

    Minorities wiped out during Armenian Genocide. Why blame Erdogan, when people voted for him?Recommend

  • Fahim

    Great Erdogan greateer TurkeyRecommend

  • Milind A

    Erdogan, if he has any brains, will free himself from the shackles of US and make up with Turkey’s old rival and neighbour Russia. Also he needs to stop playing the double game with ISIS.Recommend

  • Humza

    The problem with our Indian commentators is that they post things without any basis. If anything, Pakistan’s media freedom is unparalleled in the Muslim world and even Turkish media looks longingly at Pakistan’s media freedom. This article highlights a lot of the challenges facing Turkey. I also think Erdogan has let power go to his head and he behaves like an arrogant bully. More concerning are worries about patronage and corruption with his son Bilal or the hundreds of millions wasted on his palace. Many of my young Turkish friends want him removed from office but what is true is that no one wants a military coup to oust him. This shows the maturity of modern Turks. They can be no disputing that many Turks are fooled by Erdogan’s populism but still the Turks that see through his tricks want they he be voted out. I was in Europe when the coup took place and the whole incident was a big embarrassment for my Turkish friends who don’t want their country to look like just another 3 rd World Banana Republic where the army rules and people can’t be trusted to do anything themselves. I just hope Erdogan doesn’t go too far in his zeal for retribution so as to damage Turkey’s chance of joining the EU and getting visa free travel in Europe. The West still needs Turkey for stability in Syria and to help curb the refugee flow to Europe. Now is a tricky time for Turkey.Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    You are confusing talk shows spreading hatred as freedom of press. Freedom of press comes from being able to articulate unpopular views without the fear of persecution or being lynched. Neither Pakistani media, nor Turkish media passes that test. Pakistani media is carefully orchestrated to support an officially sponsored narrative. Turkey was always the sick man of Europe until Greece proved to be sicker. Erdogan may have won the battle but the main occupation of Turks, tourism, is in serious trouble with Erdogan’s flirtation with the ISIS, genocide against the Kurds and purge of all progressive elements in Turk society. What is left is debt fueled binge as in Pakistan which will run out soon.Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath

    Erdogan may have been elected but so was Hitler. There need to be constitutional protections against elected Tyrants. Erdogan is supporting ISIS because he believes he can use them to wipe out the Kurdish minority, but this is going to backfire on him just as the Afghan Jihad backfired on Pakistan.Recommend

  • Banapost

    The coup is quelled but Erdogan have to face the music in the future.Recommend

  • Bana Post

    Erdogan was dumped by the US and has been exposed during the Russian – Turiksh stand off. Next election is the good optionRecommend

  • Humza

    It is an indication of Pakistan’s free media that countless Indian commentators, yourself included are able to post gibberish which interferes with genuine discussion of the article being posted here. I would prefer to discuss Gulen,his possible extradition request, how Turkey is going to navigate the attempted coup without alienating its powerful military and how the future of Turkey is going to be affected by recent events both in Europe and the Middle East. Your Indian agenda is just to spew hatred and feed your anti Pakistan obsession and its a shame that Pakistan papers allow Indian trolls such unfettered freedom.Recommend

  • Humza

    Erdogan was elected in but he can also be elected out as long as Turks continue to view their constitution as sacred and not slip into the Third world mind set of quick change through military coups. The fact that Turks had the maturity to see the greater danger of a military coup despite their dislike of Erdogan is a very good sign for their democracy and something Pakistan should emulate. As for the Afghan Jehad, you need to read a little more or perhaps easier for you would be to watch the movie Charlie Wilson’s War which will give an idea of how the West used Pakistan and the Afghans in a Jehad to stop Soviet expansion. India on the other hand has engaged in state terrorism against occupied Kashmir and through ineffectual Afghan governments for over 60 years.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Most Muslim countries fancy themselves as ‘ democratic ‘ while in fact they usually are a ‘ one man or one party show ‘ masquerading as a democracy…….Turkey is no exception . Possibly that is what is needed in order to govern in the Muslim world. It raises the much asked question ‘ Is the Islamic world unsuited for democracy and if so why is it being thrust down its throat ? ‘Recommend

  • Miyagi Jr.

    I am no Indian, but sadly Turkey is headed in that direction.Recommend