A Military Coup in Turkey is a Very Big Deal

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The latest news out of Turkey is that the Turkish military has announced that it has taken control of the state. In other words, it has executed a successful military coup overthrowing the increasingly autocratic but still civilian and duly elected government of President Erdogan. It is important to note that this could be as much propaganda as statement of fact, an effort to make a fait accompli of a still fluid and unfolding situation. Regardless, it shows the seriousness of the crisis now unfolding in Turkey.

I wanted to address a few quick points about Turkish and its history of military coups. I’ve seen a number of people saying that military coups have been commonplace in Turkey. This is true but also quite misleading.

For Turkophiles and area experts, pardon my rapid review of a number of very complex topics.

There have been a series of military coups in Turkey since the post-World War II transition to multi-party democracy. Indeed, the Turkish military was deemed for decades to have a special role in the state as the protector and guarantor of the state ideology of Kemalism. Those coups could be bloody – once resulting in the hanging of a Prime Minister or ‘soft’ as in the most recent one in 1997 which ousted Erdogan’s mentor without any actual force being applied. But that history of military intervention comes before the rule of now-President Erdogan.

Secularism – confining Islam to a purely domestic role in public life – was perhaps the brightest of the military’s red lines. It has been widely understood – a general consensus among Turkey-watchers – that around half way through his current tenure in power – Erdogan effectively broke the political power of the military. He did this in a series of ways, but most notably through a series of high profile trials of top military brass over attempted coup plots that may have been real or trumped up for political purposes.

The key point is it was widely assumed that the days of military coups in Turkey were over, certainly the old version, which was often coups against government’s operating outside the bright lines of the military’s interpretation of Kemalism or simply unable to maintain civil order. So despite Turkey’s history of coups. This is neither expected nor normal. Obviously any state can have a military insurrection or coup. But most thought the old de facto system in Turkey was through. Adding to the mystery is that immediately clear what the aims of this coup would be or what the precipitating event would be. Turkey has been wracking by a series of horrific terrorist attacks. It has mass disorder on its southeastern flank in Syria and the whole cauldron of the Arab Middle East. And Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style of government has raised the temperature within Turkish society considerably. But it’s not immediately clear which of those factors would have inspired a coup, whether it is all of them or none of them.

It is important to note that Erdogan, who came to power pledging to fully democratize Turkey and in his early years took real and concrete steps in that direction has been increasingly autocratic in his rule. In some key respects the recent years of his rule have validated the predictions of those who warned against letting an Islamist party run the state. The military in its statement has said it has taken control to preserve democracy and human rights. They both definitely need protecting under Erdogan. But coup plotters almost always say some version of that.

A military coup in Turkey is a very, very big deal.

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