One of the iron clad laws of coup d’état attempts is that the winner takes all.
A week ago President Erdogan won in Turkey. The subsequent events prove he’s on his way to taking all.
He’s taking all of the military, the police, the judiciary, the media, the education, and the religion. Already more than 60,000 soldiers, police, teachers, and civil servants have been arrested, sacked, or placed under investigation. The speed of the purge strongly suggests many people caught up in it were already on lists drawn up before the coup. President Erdogan had long warned of plots against him, now he can play the ‘I told you so’ card’ as he sweeps all before him. The coup attempt was anti-democratic and roundly condemned by all the major parties in Turkey, but that does not mean that the post-coup years will be democratic.
A three-month state of emergency has been declared allowing his cabinet, to bypass parliament, pass laws, and curtail civil rights as it sees fit. The announcement has been made that the European Convention on Human Rights will be suspended, and the prospect of re-instating the death penalty has been raised.
This is not yet like the dark days of the 1980s when, under military rule, hundreds of thousands of people were jailed, killed or ‘disappeared’. Taking action following a coup attempt is inevitable, but all the signs point to Erdogan’s absolutist tendencies leading to his absolute power.
He has led Turkey as prime minister or president for 13 years, remains hugely popular, and has little now standing in his way to continue for many more years.
He is likely to try again to change Turkey’s parliamentary system of government to a presidential one. Constitutionally the prime minister is more powerful than the president, but, after three terms as prime minister when Erdogan became president he effectively took the power with him through his control of the ruling AK party, and sheer force of personality. Now he will probably attempt to codify that power.
President Erdogan is on course to become Turkey’s most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took over the country in 1923 when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. He is likely to achieve this gradually. After this month’s purge he can be expected to revert to his previous ‘long march through the institutions’. He had always moved slowly but steadily, inserting supporters into key positions, especially in education where secularism is being moved to the margins.
It was in his nature to be a ‘gradualist’, but his instincts were re-enforced when the Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi became president of Egypt and rapidly set about instituting religion into all civil institutions. This equally rapidly led to him being removed in a coup.
The gradual infiltration of islamist politics into all walks of Turkish life should consolidate President Erdogan’s grip on the country, but at a long term risk. More than 2,000 Turks are thought to have fought or are fighting with ISIS in Syria. There are neighbourhoods in Istanbul where pro ISIS paraphernalia can be bought, and Salafist ideas are increasingly being propagated albeit mostly outside of the 80,000 strong state controlled mosques. Many analysts are convinvced that Erdogan at best turned a blind eye to ISIS activity, or at worst actually supported it when he was hoping that Syria’s President Assad would fall. The Saudi rulers discovered that flirting with jihadists would come back to bite them, Erdogan may learn the same lesson.
However, that is for the long term, for now the strong man of Turkey is stronger than ever. He’s travelled a long way on the road of his journey through the democratic process. He once described democracy as taking a ride on a tram – “when you get to your stop, you get off”.