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Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

The Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Project Director, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.


Director of Communications & Outreach
Project Director, Turkey
President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan places cloves during a ceremony at Canakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Gallipoli Peninsula to mark the 103rd anniversary of the Canakkale Land Battles in Canakkale, Turkey, on 18 March 2018. Anadolu Agency/Kayhan Ozer

Turkey’s Siege Mentality

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is shaping a narrative of a country under siege, a ​victim of Western powers both in history​ and in today’s Syrian war​. While this rhetoric is popular, a broader platform is needed to bridge sharp divisions in society and mend relations with longstanding Euro-Atlantic allies.

The streets of the Dardanelles port of Çanakkale were packed with people in a jubilant mood. Beyond the centuries-old forts guarding the strait, Turkish warships rode at anchor on the horizon. Turkish flags of every shape and size waved madly in a wind so strong that the naval manoeuvres and air force fly-bys had to be cancelled.  

It was 18 March, Çanakkale Victory and Martyrs Day, when Turkey celebrates the anniversary of the British and French navies’ defeat in their 1915 attempt to force their way to Istanbul, then capital of the Ottoman Empire. On the same day, Turkey also honours the Ottoman soldiers who lost their lives as they beat back Allied forces in the Gallipoli campaign that began on 25 April 1915.

A previous generation used 18 March mainly to celebrate the memory of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic who made his name as an Ottoman officer defending the heights overlooking the strait. But in today’s Turkey, everything, especially history, is now pressed into the cause of popular support for the policies of the hour. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself appeared in Çanakkale to underline the message of a nation under siege.

In today’s Turkey, everything, especially history, is now pressed into the cause of popular support for the policies of the hour.

On all television channels and social media, he could be seen and heard announcing a new victory, this time the capture of the Syrian town of Afrin, taken over by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the support of the Turkish military. Images showed bearded FSA men entering Afrin’s centre and residents – among whom men of fighting age were notably absent – tossing rice from roofs and balconies. In the footage, Afrin’s people cheered the removal of banners of Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group with which Turkey has been engaged in a three-decade long struggle.

“What happened in Çanakkale is happening in Afrin. Just like we defeated those who were poised to celebrate their victory in Çanakkale, so have we defeated those who thought they were establishing a corridor of terror on our borders”, President Erdoğan told the crowds. “The wave of terror against Turkey is nothing other than an effort to revive the Çanakkale campaign a century later”.

Young people on the Dardanelles Strait seafront celebrate Turkey's First World War victory over the British and French navies on 18 March 1915. Turkish Navy ships can be seen in the background. Çanakkale, Turkey, 18 March 2018. CRISIS GROUP/Nigar Göksel

By “wave of terror”, the president meant not just the PKK and its affiliates – but something else as well. Into his narrative of a country under attack Erdoğan wove the failed coup attempt against him in July 2016, apparently mounted by loyalists of Islamist preacher and former ally of the ruling AK Party, Fethullah Gülen, based in the U.S. and labelled “FETO” by Ankara. “Turkish people who rose against the coup forces to protect their country acted in a similar spirit as their forebears did a century earlier”, the president said.

In the park and on the waterfront in Çanakkale, the multitudes rejoiced. They recited the anthems they have known by heart since primary school, sometimes swapping Erdoğan’s name for Atatürk’s and Afrin for Çanakkale.

The overarching narrative the government has persuaded society to adopt is straightforward. Just as the states that won World War I were stymied by the Turkish war of independence, those same Western powers, the PKK and “FETO” will be foiled by the “new Turkey” that Erdoğan says he is building. And perhaps because this siege mentality was present under Erdoğan’s predecessors, the secularist parties that ruled Turkey, no one seems to notice the logical disconnect: these supposedly perfidious Western powers are Turkey’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as well as being its leading economic partners.

President Erdoğan is not alone in promoting this picture of an outside world ranged against Turkey. It was fully endorsed by the head of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, who was re-elected chairman at a party congress not coincidentally held on 18 March. It was Bahçeli who after the June 2015 parliamentary elections called for repeat elections rather than form a coalition with the secularist main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which had done surprisingly well at the polls. The MHP head told the congress he approves of the greatly enhanced executive powers that Erdoğan won in the referendum in April 2017: “Tayyip Erdoğan was globally encircled, and we could not escape responsibility”.

There is also a good case for Turkey’s leadership to adopt a more inclusive platform

The apparent unity leaves out large segments of society, however. The MHP welcomed members of other parties, but did not invite HDP, CHP or conservative secularist Iyi Parti representatives to the congress, breaking with a Turkish tradition whereby opponents are welcome at such events. Together, these three parties represent up to 40 percent of the population. The mayor of Çanakkale, a CHP member, did not attend the grand Çanakkale ceremony on 18 March because Erdoğan had ordered that he be barred from speaking. Notably, this mayor had won 54.5 percent of the vote in the 2014 local elections.

When I asked passersby in Çanakkale about Erdoğan’s intertwining of party politics, the Afrin operation and past martial triumphs, few really answered me. Some basked in his rhetoric of national pride. Others were reluctant to say anything. After all, courts have jailed more than 70 journalists in Turkey, and police have started judicial proceedings against hundreds of social media users who posted criticism of the Turkish campaign in Syria. I recalled the words of a journalist friend when he returned recently from Hatay, across the border from Afrin: “People are now even scared of commenting about the price of tomatoes”. Still, some in Çanakkale told me they cringed while watching television coverage of the behaviour of FSA fighters in Afrin because they were “shooting in the air like thugs”, or “looking like jihadists” as they chanted “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”). “Our glorious army should not be in the same ranks as these people”, one person said.

Whether ideologically aligned with the ruling elite or not, nearly everyone is pleased by the leaps forward in infrastructure that have been the strong suit of Erdoğan’s party. On 18 March 2017, Erdoğan held a signing ceremony for what will be the longest suspension bridge in the world, the Çanakkale 1915 Bridge across the Dardanelles Strait. This year on 18 March he announced that construction would be finished eighteen months ahead of schedule, on 18 March 2022, a year before the centennial of the Republic of Turkey. This bridge is one of many improvements that shorten distances for those headed from Istanbul to Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean towns.  

The happy crowds that gathered in Çanakkale to celebrate the heroic victory of 1915 are a reminder that many Turks are content enough with the current state of affairs, be it for material or ideological reasons. Indeed, Erdoğan seems unlikely to lose soon to opposition politicians who have little in common beyond personal dislike for him. Still, around half the society is aggrieved by his heavy-handed governance.

Some of those countries that besieged the Dardanelles Strait a century ago and are framed as “enemies” by today’s narrative have been Turkey’s allies for the past six decades, and share strong interest in the country’s stability, democracy and prosperity. While the critics of Ankara’s political leadership need to recognise that Erdoğan still enjoys considerable domestic support, there is also a good case for Turkey’s leadership to adopt a more inclusive platform – both internally and externally – for what is likely to be many more years of rule.

Photo Caption: President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan places cloves during a ceremony at Canakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Gallipoli Peninsula to mark the 103rd anniversary of the Canakkale Land Battles in Canakkale, Turkey, on 18 March 2018. Source: Anadolu Agency/Kayhan Ozer.