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Transatlantic Take

Failed Coup Attempt: An Opportunity for Turkish Democracy

The attempted coup d'état in Turkey came at a time when no one expected it, and ended very quickly thanks to the determination of the political leadership, the loyalty of the army to the democratically elected government, the unity of th

The attempted coup d'état in Turkey came at a time when no one expected it, and ended very quickly thanks to the determination of the political leadership, the loyalty of the army to the democratically elected government, the unity of the political class, the faith of the Turkish people in democracy, and perhaps above all the clumsiness of the would-be junta.

The coup was attempted by a small number of officers mainly from the Air Force and supported by others from the gendarmerie and army aviation. The conscripts they managed to mobilize were apparently not aware of what was going on: some of them were told that this was a counterterrorism operation, and others, that this was an exercise. The top command of the armed forces did not endorse the attempt. The chief of staff General Hulusi Akar was taken hostage but refused to sign the coup manifesto although he was threatened and physically forced to do so. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and all of the opposition parties denounced the attempt during the first hour when the attempt appeared to be succeeding. There was absolutely no public support to the coup attempt from the media and civil society.

The would-be junta made several bad calculations. First, they launched the coup at 22:30, when most people were still awake and streets were full. It was an absolute miscalculation if they thought that the opposition would take to the streets in support of the coup. Second, they announced the coup prematurely when they had not captured a single political leader and could not control the media except for the public broadcaster. Last but not the least: they did not appear to have a strategy for winning. The would-be junta appeared stronger than they were because they controlled several jets and helicopters and two airbases, but they did not have significant boots on the ground. The turning point of the coup attempt was when President Erdoğan made a live statement on CNN Turk Channel through FaceTime and asked citizens to take to the streets to oppose the coup attempt. Huge crowds of people poured onto the streets and pushed back the soldiers from strategic places such as the İstanbul Atatürk Airport, Turkish Radio and Television, and government buildings in various cities. It should be noted that most of the crowd were supporters of the government, and although it was democracy and not religion that was under threat, they chanted pro-Erdoğan and religious slogans rather than democracy messages. The government reinforced this approach by constantly chanting the Ezan (call to prayer) and prayers from mosques throughout the country. As a result, non-religious Turks did not relate with these messages and stayed home, although they were also against the coup attempt.

The Turkish Parliament demonstrated rare unity during these terrible events. The deputies from all parties stayed at the parliament even when it was under helicopter fire. The day after, they held a special session and signed a joint manifesto against the coup attempt. The would-be junta called themselves the “Peace at Home Group.” In a way, they were successful. Turkey is a highly polarized society with very few islands of agreement among political parties and their constituencies. Being against the coup has emerged as a very important point of agreement, and the government could use it to forge much needed national unity and social cohesion in Turkey. If President Erdoğan and the government instead use the momentum to further consolidate power and weaken rule of law and separation of powers, it will make Turkey vulnerable to future attacks against democracy.

The failed coup attempt will also be a test for U.S.-Turkey relations. While it is not proven yet, both the government and the military circles accuse the Gülen Movement, whose leader resides in the U.S., for the coup attempt. During a rally President Erdoğan criticized the U.S. for not handing over Fethullah Gülen to Turkey and said “Today, after this coup attempt, I’m once again calling on you, I’m saying: Extradite this man in Pennsylvania to Turkey now.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım was even more direct when he said, “Any country that stands behind Fethullah Gülen is no friend of Turkey,” when addressing journalists at this office. The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has responded to the Turkish government asking it to present legitimate evidence on Fethullah Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt and said that, “the United States will accept that and look at it and make judgments about it appropriately.” Given that Ankara and Washington are already at odds over U.S. cooperation with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria, it will certainly mean trouble if they cannot reach an understanding about the accused enemy of the Turkish state living in eastern Pennsylvania.