abstract image of a screaming face

Image: andrew hale (flickr)

Authoritarianism before and after the 15 July 2016 coup in Turkey

27th November 2017

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear

Since the institution of the Republic in 1923, the Turkish Armed Forces have intervened in civilian politics, in 1960, 1971, 1980, and again in 2016. The 1960 and 1980 interventions resulted in the founding of the Second and Third Turkish Republics respectively, through the declaration of new, military-drafted constitutions. Somewhat ironically, despite the complete failure of the 2016 coup d’état attempt, it, too, will result in profound political change, originating from major constitutional amendments passed in a referendum held under emergency rule earlier this year that will institute in reality (if not in name) the Fourth Turkish Republic.

Perhaps my mention of four military coups since 1923 might give some indication that democratic government in Turkey is more an exception than the rule. Nevertheless, the current situation in Turkey is probably as bad as it was in the 1990s, despite a series of democratic reforms in the first decade of this new century. Today Turkey is governed under emergency law and by state decree, with the Parliament suspended and President Tayyip Erdogan presiding over the official Council of Ministers. Its first act in July 2016 was to officially suspend human rights, precluding individuals from seeking legal remedy or protection against arrest or State action. Indeed, according to legal scholars, “in their attempt to foil the coup, Erdoğan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) have created legal conditions that make the political regime more similar to a military junta than a democratic government under peril.”

How has such a political and legal situation come about? Two significant actions by the ruling AK Party years before the coup attempt have contributed to the constitution of authoritarian rule in Turkey. The first attack on civil society was made in Tayyip Erdogan’s response to the month-long Gezi Park protests in 2013. Then Government redevelopment plans for Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s few remaining green spaces, sparked huge demonstrations in Istanbul and beyond. The legal protests met with excessive and unprovoked police violence, transforming the Park and nearby suburbs into hotbeds of political action all infused by the drift of tear gas and pepper spray. The Rapid Response Forces of the General Directorate of Security marched down their streets to drag participants away. Hundreds of people were injured.

The second sequence of illiberal processes has involved the AK Party’s suppression of both the Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party) and of Kurdish municipalism more generally, despite both being legal political actors within the Turkish electoral system. After the June 2015 general elections, when the HDP gained 14 per cent of the popular vote, the AK Party carried out a series of illegal and extra-legal acts to prevent it taking its place there. Since 2015 the police have detained 10,000 people and made 3000 arrests of HDP members. As of today, HDP parliamentarians have been stripped of parliamentary immunity, charged with supporting terrorism, and taken to court. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chair of the party, was accused of sedition and terrorism, for which the prosecutor sought 130 years imprisonment.

The third event that facilitated the AK Party’s suspending of the Parliament entirely was of course the attempted military coup on July 15 2016. Sometime around midnight tanks blockaded the Bosphorus Bridge; planes bombed the national assembly in Ankara; and anonymous military personnel entered the state television studio and forced the news anchor there to broadcast a message to the nation announcing the overthrow of the Government. In response the Government denounced the military activists as traitors, refused their demand to resign, and called protestors against the intervention into the squares of Ankara and Istanbul. Thousands of anti-coup demonstrators responded, and in 12 hours the attempted coup d’état was defeated.

The consequences of the unsuccessful coup have been significant. Within days tens of thousands of people were removed from State employ. A year later the total has now reached one hundred and fifty thousand, with another fifty thousand people arrested. The AKP Government has also pressed ahead with a referendum on constitutional reform in a state of emergency, preventing active campaigning against it. Passed by a bare majority in April this year, the changes will abolish the parliamentary system in 2019 for a new executive presidential one that grants extraordinary powers to the elected President.

Alongside these political and security measures, the Government through its censored media has also been active in creating and policing an official meaning for the coup, constructed both through narrative and via symbolic commemorative acts. The first aspect of the political narrative constituting the meaning of the event has been its naming and shaming of the coup’s perpetuators: here I refer to tactic as know thy enemy. According to the Government, the small numbers of officers involved in the failed intervention were members of the Gülen Cemaat, demonized in the acronym PDY/FETÖ (Parallel State Structure/Fethullah Terrorist Organization), and accused by the AKP of infiltrating state institutions, including the army. Although that has not appeared a convincing scenario for many governments around the globe (including for Australia), in his performative speech inaugurating a state of emergency 5 days after the failed coup, President Erdoğan defined plotters as ‘terrorists wearing army uniforms.’

Secondly, and equally important has been the Government’s ‘declaration’ of the intentions and character of the public who confronted the soldiers on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara: here I refer to this as know thy ally. In his speech announcing emergency rule 4 days after the coup attempt, Tayyip Erdogan asserted the identity of the people who had ‘defended the future’ in writing their heroic epic:

Our nation have lived for years with their regrets that they were unable to protect Menderes and his friends. The nation’s grief is still fresh from their inability to stand up for our young people against the ideologies of the left and the right at the 1980 coup. This [action] has become a turning point that has brought that terrible course of events to an end.

For the first time in our history an attempted coup was unsuccessful because of the actions of the people. Turkey’s ties to democracy and to the law were proven at the risk of lives.

I offer my gratitude to all those who since July 15th have filled the streets shouting their support for the state and the government. Every citizen who stood up straight against the tanks stood up against them with their faith, shouting out the şehadet [Muslim statement of belief].

The attribution to the nation of long-held regrets concerning their inability to protect the elected government in 1960 allowed the President to constitute protesters’ actions on the night of the coup and afterwards as their means of making amends, and as vindication of this deeply-felt and long-harboured mood. The President’s narrative was intended to emotionally clarify protesters’ knowledge of the resistance event garnered from confused, direct experience on the night, not only for participants but also for the citizens of Turkey as a whole.

Equally importantly, alongside his (relatively) inclusive language praising the heroic actions of the nation or of the citizens, the President’s reference to their religious convictions also asserted that theirs was an Islamic struggle. In the year since the coup event, pro-Government media has reiterated and elaborated on many of the President’s narrative themes. For the Islamic newspapers, this ‘Muslim’ resistance resulted not only in victory over the Gülen movement but more significantly over its ‘crusader’ and ‘Zionist’ Western backers. Taking their cue from the Government, the media has ceaselessly accused the Fethullah organization of using religion and belief as a cover or as a mask to hide its criminal intentions and its traitorous allegiances, claiming that along with its Western backers it presents as an extraordinary continuing danger to Turkey. Insistence on the terrible deceitfulness of the organization is necessary to deflect attention from the embarrassing truth: that for at least a decade up until 2013 the AKP and the Gülen movement had been close allies.

This dominant /Government narrative westernising the attempted coup and Islamising resistance to it has been propagated in other ways as well. Since 2017 the high school curriculum has a new segment on the July 15th coup attempt, portraying Tayyip Erdoğan as a national hero. July 15th has been declared a national holiday: Democracy and Freedom Day. Further, certain significant places have been renamed to symbolically commemorate the event. Thus the Bosphorus Bridge is now known as ‘15th July Martyrs Bridge’; Kizilay Square in Ankara is ‘15th July Kizilay National Will Square’; the main bus station in Istanbul is now ‘Istanbul 15th July Democracy Terminal’; and Akinci Airbase from where the planes took off to bomb the parliament has been downgraded and renamed Mürted (Apostate) Airbase. One could go on. In brief, naming the coup’s perpetrators and constituting through ritual performance the intentions of civilian resistance to them has been central to the Government’s well-organized response to the coup attempt.

Let me conclude by asking whether this strategy has convinced the Turkish population? It may seem a strange interpretation, but I would argue that in terms of influencing the political subjectivity of citizens, the AKP Government’s interpretive description of the coup in narrative and ritual must be seen more as a relative failure than as a triumphant success.

My main evidence is electoral. The Turkish population has had one opportunity to declare their approval of the Government’s scripting and symbolization of the coup event – in the April referendum on the constitutional amendments that greatly strengthened the power of the President. It resulted in a less than resounding success for the AKP. Most significantly, for the first time since 1994 the AKP lost the popular vote in both Istanbul and Ankara, the very two cities placed at the centre of the Government’s narratives that celebrated the actions of citizens to protect democracy and legitimize the Government.

Chris Houston is an anthropologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University. He is an internationally recognised expert on Turkey’s social and political movements, particularly the intersections between nationalism, Islam and the pursuit of Kurdish independence.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet