Stephen Starr: Erdogan emerges stronger from failed insurrection

Western leaders and rights groups are now calling for support for Turkey’s elected president

It seemed for a brief few hours on Friday night that Turkey's autocratic president and the government that backs him would become victims of an enduring touchstone of 20th century politics in Turkey – the military coup.

In fact, the sum total of what is now clearly a failed insurrection has seen critics of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at home and abroad line up to back him.

Western leaders and, in particular, international rights groups that for three years assailed Turkey for overseeing a range of restrictions on media and the rolling back of a host of democratic rights, are now calling for support for the democratically-elected president.

For Erdogan, who increasingly sees his place in the world as the person to enact a grand neo-Ottoman renaissance for the country, decidedly defeating the military, having already taken care of internal dissent in the judiciary and police forces, will add to his own sense of invincibility and place as a foremost figure in Turkish history. More than that, the failed coup has allowed Erdogan backers to double down in their defence of the country around his single authority, regardless of the fact that Turkey’s constitution forbids the presidency from interfering in the running of the country.


“Since the beginning of the incident, the patriotism and prudence demonstrated by our chief commander Mr President has enabled our government, patriotic commanders and our nation to unite and overcome this calamity,” prime minister Binali Yildirim said Saturday evening.

In addition to funnelling important strands of governmental control into the president’s hands, Friday’s events have brought together – at least in the short term – a society that had been fracturing for several years. Opposition to Erdogan had focused around two main camps – Kurds and liberals.

The government’s military and political campaigns against separatist Kurds and Kurdish opposition politicians since July 2015 have cost hundreds of Kurdish civilian lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more in the southeast.

However, Ankara’s war has proved hugely popular among Turks, who have viewed Kurdish claims for autonomy with deep suspicion and fear since the 1970s.

Silenced or sidelined

Liberals, rejuvenated by the mass anti-government protests centred on Istanbul’s Gezi park in June 2013, have also been silenced or sidelined. Laws controlling internet use have been introduced, annual LGBT and unions’ public gatherings banned, and critical media and journalists closed down and silenced on a massive scale, emptying the lungs of this once stalwart element of Turkish society.

Moreover, the scenes from Friday night drove fear into the hearts of 78 million Turks. It has been one of the deadliest few days in Turkish history, with at least 265 people killed. When word emerged of soldiers on Istanbul’s Bosphorus bridge, those old enough to remember 1970s and 1980s Turkey rushed to secure water, food and cash.

One image of a man lying down in front of the tracks of a tank portrayed the extent to which Erdogan supporters will go to to keep their president in power. Then, as the coup attempt quickly crumbled, soldiers, most likely conscripts and possibly still in their teenage years, were beaten and belt-whipped by crowds of presumably Erdogan supporters. In just two days almost 6,000 civilians and military figures have been arrested and further crackdowns are expected.

What's clear in the aftermath of the failed insurrection is that it lacked planning or a serious intent to wrestle control of the country from Mr Erdogan and the AK Party.

Rebel soldiers arrived at the president's holiday residence in Bodrum a full two hours after he left. Not one government ministry was overrun by dissenting forces and reports have emerged that troops sent to block the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul believed they were on a drill. There was no figure on hand to address the country to explain why and how a military intervention was necessary.

Even the reclusive Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, in self-imposed exile in the Pennsylvanian countryside, took the unusual step of welcoming journalists into his home Saturday to deny claims by Turkish authorities that he or his supporters were involved.

Ankara has now asked the United States to extradite Gulen, whose religious Hizmet movement claims millions of conservative supporters in Turkey.

Historic end

Regardless, Friday’s events mark an historic end of the military’s power over Turkish political life, something it held on to with almost unequalled control since the foundation of the state in 1923.

Now, with an increasing number of Turks turning to Erdogan as the figure of strength in an increasingly unstable political environment, dissent may melt away as the government goes on the hunt.

Emre Kizilkaya, a journalist at the Hurriyet Daily News newspaper, where coup soldiers attempted to take control early Saturday morning, believes the failure of the coup will now lead to Erdogan taking on perceived and real threats on all fronts.

“A purge of Gulenists from the army and the judiciary has already started. We can expect similar moves in all bureaucracy. The process has been going on in the past three years but it would be more dramatic now,” he said.

“Most Turks sympathise with underdogs, the dark horse. So, the failed coup leaves Erdogan stronger because he is now, once again, the victim. Gulenists, on the other hand, are condemned by all segments of society as the cruel oppressor. As a skilful politician, Erdogan is likely to turn it into an advantage against other political opponents, too.”