A silver lining

I think I’ve now seen just about every possible take on last week’s attempted coup in Turkey, which is often the point in the lifecycle of these foreign crises when the general public loses interest and the discussion about whatever (in this case Turkey) moves back into the usual niches. And that discussion, of course, can only react to actual events in Turkey, so even the best/smartest analysis you can find is only as smart or insightful as whatever happens next. Much of the discussion at this point has shifted from OMG COUP to OMG PURGE, which makes some sense given that Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has now suspended, fired, and/or detained over 50,000 people in the aftermath of this past weekend’s events, a huge number even in the context of Turkey’s admittedly large civil and military apparatus.

(I’m digressing, but I’ve actually heard people try to downplay that 50,000+ figure by arguing that the Turkish state and Turkish military are very large. Well, look, the US government and military are larger, but if President Obama suspended and/or arrested 50,000 people working in either of those entities over the span of three or four days, I think we’d all agree that would be a pretty stunning turn of events.)

Speaking of all the takes, by the way, read my interview with Brookings Turkey expert Ömer Taşpınar, online now! It’s good, I promise. He knows his stuff.

Instead of focusing on the increasingly worrisome aspects of Erdoğan’s reaction to the attempted coup–he seems intent on using it to purge his political enemies, he may be able to ride the wave of public sentiment to a new constitution that enshrines him as a Vladimir Putin-esque autocratic president without any real checks on his power, US-Turkey relations look like they could very well get even dicier than they already were, etc.–I wanted to note the one clear positive thing that came out of this whole affair, at least as I see it.

For a country that’s been wracked with ~5 military coupes in the less than 100 years since it was founded, it was really kind of uplifting to see so many parts of the Turkish state and society come out unanimously against the coup attempt. All of Turkey’s three main opposition parties strongly rejected the coup attempt, and while this was to be expected from the ultra-nationalist MHP, which increasingly gets along pretty well with AKP as AKP moves further to the right (stealing MHP’s base as it does), and the primarily Kurdish HDP, whose constituents would likely have suffered just as much under a military junta as they’ve been suffering under Erdoğan, but even the Kemalist CHP, the traditional party of the Turkish military, rejected the coup attempt. Hard information is still sketchy, but it seems that most of Turkey’s military and its police forces didn’t support the coup either. They didn’t all do this because they’re closet Erdoğan fans, and they didn’t all do this because they were afraid of the consequences of supporting a failed coup. Many of them did it to defend, not AKP and Erdoğan, but Turkish democracy. Many of them opposed the coup attempt because they believe in the principle that, in general (you can always make an exception in extreme cases), armies should not overthrow their civilian governments.

(You might almost think that this is a moment for Turkish politics to become less divisive and more cooperative…except that Erdoğan clearly seems to be out for his pound of flesh, and he’s likely even more hell-bent than before on turning the Turkish presidency into something approaching an elected dictatorship.)

Look, military coups as a rule are horrifying–people die, more people are arrested for no justifiable reason, and they wreck democracies and civil societies. Turkey has a history of military coups that topple elected governments but then return power to new elected governments in relatively short order, which is more than you can say for a lot of other coups. But those past Turkish coups have still been setbacks for Turkish democracy, still thwarted the will of Turkish voters, still cost the lives and freedom of hundreds upon hundreds of people, collectively speaking. And there’s no particular reason to assume that this coup, had it succeeded initially, would have proceeded even as relatively benignly as the last five went. In fact, I would argue that the massive public outpouring against the coup on Friday night meant that, had this would-be junta managed to succeed (say, by capturing or killing Erdoğan somehow), it would have come at the cost of a whole lot of dead civilians.

So even though Erdoğan increasingly looks like a tyrant, even though he’s done plenty to destroy civil society in Turkey in his own right, and even though what comes next for Turkey could be very bad, I do think the Turkish people and the Turkish state made a statement against their unfortunate tradition of military intervention in civilian governance. That statement could go out the window tomorrow for all I know (and the longer and bigger Erdoğan’s purge gets, the greater the chances of another coup attempt, it seems to me), but it’s nevertheless an important development and, I think, a positive one.


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