Opposition emboldens Erdogan

Soldiers during coup (courtesy New York Times)

The failed military coup in Turkey may be marked in history as the catalyst by which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the executive branch and himself. A man who has maintained his power as President for the last 15 years, jailed dissidents, most iconically a journalist who had compared to head of state to the fictional character Gollum, and emboldened a Turkish nationalism that has haunted the country since WWII, Erdogan’s actions following the coup are that of an opportunistic autocrat.

Dusk had fallen over Turkey when a military splinter made up mostly of mid-level officers within the Turkish army swept into the streets, capturing key government officials and state media.

Via the captured broadcasting stations they declared President Erdogan autocratic, naming themselves as a transitionary force for democracy and in control of the country. However, an uncaptured Erdogan, using private media and FaceTime, stirred his Turkish flag-clad loyalists into the streets.

The morality of the coup attempt is a worthy debate, whether or not the leadership of the movement even truly maintained that sort of moralistic sentiment, as well as whether it might have succeeded where so many military juntas have failed at realizing those promises, is unknowable and made irrelevant by the coup’s failure. What matters most to Turkey, that cultural bastion balanced precariously between the East and West in religion, politics and culture, is to what lengths Erdogan will go the destroy opposition forces.

The coup came in the aftermath of years of an ironfisted regime made chaotic and unpredictable by terrorists and rebel Kurdish groups which have opposed the Turkish state. Public disapproval over power grabs made by Erdogan, tension over the nation’s position on the Syrian Civil War and the inability to bring internal stability laid the ground for an uprising.

Subsequently, Erdogan and the AKP have blatantly used the coup attempt as an excuse to purge anyone who might be considered a threat to the stability of his rule. 50,000 people have been removed from government-funded positions, including teachers, university deans, judges, prosecutors and politicians, 7,500 of which have been arrested, according to Reuters. The Turkish President has repeatedly threatened to reinstate the death penalty, which the EU has said would bar the country from joining the union.

A particular movement long unfavorable to Erdogan’s presidency, the Gulenists, have been accused of inciting the unrest. The movement’s integration into the education system of Turkey is key to why so many teachers and deans have been targeted, as Erdogan attempts to remove any who could oppose him and any parallel ideology which could support that opposition. Erdogan has demanded the extradition of Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, the movement’s founder, from the United States.

The U.S. may very well comply so as to maintain relations with its ally. This would be a grave mistake.

Europe and the U.S. have considerable influence in Turkey and need not agree with the junta to see Erdogan’s response as undemocratic and dangerous to a country that already has a tenuous relationship with democracy. It is impossible to guarantee which direction Turkey will be headed towards in five years, whether the population may revolt en masse or adjust to a new normal of autocracy, it is clear where Erdogan is taking it immediately.