Turkey has had lots of coups. Here’s why this one failed

Steven A Cook writes: Turkey has changed since coups seemed a routine feature of the country’s politics. In previous eras, the military could easily intimidate opponents into upholding the secularizing and repressive principles of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Yet as Turkey has become a more complex society and the AKP has sought to integrate the country globally, the conformity of Kemalism no longer works. In 1997, many Turks welcomed the military’s intervention to undermine Turkey’s first experiment with Islamist-led government. A decade later when the military sought to prevent one of the AKP’s founders, Abdullah Gul, from becoming president — opposing, among other things, the fact that Gul’s wife wore a headscarf — Turks protested, declaring that they neither wanted Islamic law nor military rule.

There had been moments before when Turks defied the military, but the 2007 protests that put the military on the defensive and helped pave the way for Gul’s presidency were a rather unambiguous indication that Turks would no longer submit to the military, no matter how often they were told it was in their interests.

Second, previous coups succeeded because they had significant civilian support. When the tanks rolled up to the Grand National Assembly and prime ministry on September 12, 1980, Turks breathed a sigh of relief because the military promised to bring an end to the violence between rightist and leftist forces that had taken thousands of lives in the previous four years.

The 1997 intervention, sometimes called the “blank” coup or “post-modern” coup because the military did not actually deploy, was the culmination of the military’s efforts to cooperate with women’s organizations, academics, cosmopolitan elites, the media and big business to destabilize and delegitimize a coalition government under the leadership of an Islamist party from which the AKP descends.

In contrast, on Friday night, the faction that sought to overturn the government had little popular support. When Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and then Erdogan himself called on Turks to defy what they called an “uprising,” and when both their supporters, and some detractors, responded, it was only a matter of time before the government regained the upper hand: Military intervention in politics has become an affront to whom Turks believe themselves to be.

Finally, the coup was bound to fail because of who Erdogan is, what he represents for his constituents, and what he has done since coming to power. The Turkish president is a politician of uncanny talents who has captured the imagination of roughly half the electorate that has voted for him in such large numbers since 2007.

Around the world, only former president Bill Clinton edges Erdogan in terms of political skill and charisma. To his devoted followers, Erdogan has corrected historic wrongs and injustices by overcoming an insular and undemocratic secular elite, given life to a new political and business class, and established Turkey as a regional, even global, power.

Yet it is not just how Turks respond to Erdogan on an emotional level that has made him the most important Turkish leader since Ataturk, but also the very fact that he has delivered. Since the AKP came to power, the Turkish public has enjoyed greater access to health care, better infrastructure, more transportation options, more money in their wallets and the opportunity to explore their Muslim identities in ways that were unacceptable in the past.

It is true that over the past several years, Turkey has ramped up repression of journalists, the AKP has sought to remake the judiciary, checks and balances on the executive’s power have been greatly weakened, and corrupt government ministers are beyond the reach of the law. Yet this authoritarian approach didn’t sway the president’s voters to back his overthrow. And the coup plotters wrongly calculated that their show of force would intimidate Erdogan’s supporters. [Continue reading…]

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