Should we support the Turkish Coup?

AKP, Erdogan and the threat to Kemalism

Turkish Flag / CC
Photograph: 'Turkish Flag' by by Matt Czarnocki / CC

A Turkish military officer during the 1960 military coup stated one of his justifications for moving against the government: “…it is not only a professional job but also a national duty, guardianship of the state.”

The Kemalist project, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, is now in great peril. Much like the Gezi protests in Istanbul, AKP has been actively engaged in destroying the garden of Turkish democracy, uplifting and silently poisoning the roots of Kemalism.

Western media and international perspectives have been largely unsupportive of the coup attempt in Turkey; calling it a triumph for civil society for having prevented the breakdown of democracy. This says more about European political priorities in Turkey than of a clear understanding of Turkish political development since the 2000s.

As most observers of Turkish politics will concur, this coup was unsurprising, overdue and its defeat has been no triumph for democracy. Sadly, this failed coup will only hasten the demise of Republican democracy.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been taking over the institutions of the Kemalist state and renouncing the core tenets of Turkish democracy on which the Republic is built.

Secularism, statism, republicanism, humanist nationalism, populism and revolutionism were the principles with which Ataturk formed Turkey out of the ruinous Ottoman Empire reeling from defeat in the First World War.

The crucial political actor in the formation of the Turkish republic was the military, determined to protect Kemalist principles from threats abroad and from within. A role which it has remained committed to and exercised against governments it perceived to be undermining Kemalist political development in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997 and now 2016.

With the ascendency of AKP in the early 2000s, it appeared their moderate line was consistent with the aims of the Kemalist project. Unlike preceding Islamic parties of the 1990s, Fazilet Partisi and Refah Partisi, AKP consciously democratised itself and adhered to the secular principles of the Republic.

From 2011 onwards, AKP is now in the final stages of consolidating power in Turkey and the suspicions of pro-Kemalist and secular supporters on AKP’s ‘hidden agenda’ are being realised. This military intervention was the last hope of preventing AKP’s triumph in Turkey and should be lamented for this reason.

The first indication of a hidden agenda came with the removal of pro-secular forces in the institutions of the Turkish state. The nine harmonisation laws passed by AKP between 2002-2004, in line with Copenhagen Criteria, limited the role of the military as a political actor.

Finally, it was claimed, the military recognised the right for the civilian government ‘to be wrong’, rather than attempting to correct their course. Erdogan clearly was more intent on clipping their wings as a number of General’s between 2002-2011 were removed from their posts.

Notably, General Basbug who was highly critical of AKP was jailed for life in 2013 after a number of show trials in which Erdogan systematically removed pro-secular lawyers, journalists and politicians.

Nothing more needs to be said on the issue of free expression and journalism which has been curtailed heavily. The moment previously critical News channels are brought under state control should be a milestone for any society on the path to authoritarianism.

And with it, our first and most important root of Kemalism, secularism is under threat. The poisoning of secularism comes with the Islamisation of education and of government. Ataturk’s fears of the “dark forces of religious reaction” against Kemalism are all too evident.

The substantial increase in the Diyant staff budgets to TL 2,445 billion in 2009 and the number of students attending Imam-Hatip schools increasing from 64,532 in 2003 to 143,637 in 2009 are sound indicators. Even ending the ban on headscarves, previously enforced for the emancipation of women, shows a retreat back to Islamic conservatism rather than a step on the path of modernisation.

The statist policies of Ataturk and the Republican Peoples Party (CHP), have long since been abandoned in favour of free-market liberalisation. The creation of a new economic actor ‘Homo-Islamicus’, intent on profiteering in line with protecting social and cultural values of Islam was a central aim of AKP policy.

It helps explain the rise of MUSIAD (Muslim Business owners) and the number of pro-AKP businessmen who find themselves gaining contracts for development across Turkey. Economic nepotism and reward for loyalty.

Even Ataturk’s great humanist nationalism is under perversion. AKP have extended applications for Syrian refugee’s to claim Turkish nationality. Admirable but the cynic suggests that he is merely extending Turkish influence into Syria.

Should refugees be able to return to Syria, where will they look for assistance in building up their war-torn country from the ashes? Will they identify with new cross-border Turkish identity they have been granted over Syrian citizenship?

Other Arab groups appear highly supportive of Erdogan. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood look to him as a symbol of unity; hopeful that he represents a shift in Turkish foreign policy away from the west towards the east. Undermining again, a central aim of the Kemalist Republic which sought to raise itself to the level of contemporary western civilisation.

I am reminded of an anecdotal piece of evidence from my own time living in Turkey. One hotel barman in Kusadasi noted that America and the west meddled in Turkey, making them fight internally to keep them weak. A recent article by Laura Pitel in the New Statesman, similarly confirms a deepening of nationalist and xenophobic attitudes against the west emergent in Turkey.

Distilling a picture of a Turkey now more concerned with extending its own power in the middle east at the expense of its relationship with the west.

However, why did Erdogan survive the coup?

Crucially, he has gained the support of a great many with 49.50% of Turkish people voting for AKP in the 2015 November election. The coup staged in the same way late 20th century coups were carried out, met an immovable barrier in the form of social media.

It seems that Erdogan’s use of FaceTime, Twitter and Facebook counteracted the military’s takeover of state T.V. The use of the citizens as a barrier between himself and the military similarly captured the high ground.  The moment civilian casualties were reported at the hands of the putschists, their legitimacy was lost.

There may no longer be an appetite for coup’s in Turkey but the aftermath has proven that the Kemalists and pro-secular forces laid down their last gamble and have failed.

Talk of reintroducing the death penalty; the reported tortures of captured soldiers; the 50,000 people from education, judicial and state government jobs who have since been arrested; is all proof that this coup was defending democracy, human rights and secularism.

We live in imperfect times, with powerful movements threatening these great ideas. Imperfect solutions like the coup d’etat will be scolded, but time will prove that this is a lost revolution.

This coup embodied the revolutionism of Kemalism. The desire to respond to political realities around them and to react accordingly.

A new Presidential system now seems inevitable to replace the Grand National Assembly as the true head of Turkish national sovereignty.

Soon, the balance of government, civil society and the guardians of the republic, the military, will come to be missed as they are replaced by an authoritarian system of governance which Kemalism sought to prevent.

The resumption of the Gezi Park development in Istanbul comes at a pivotal moment in Turkish political development. Like the nature reserve Erdogan built his Presidential palace on in Ankara, Gezi itself seems to serve as the iconic symbol for the death of secularism in Turkey.

The roots of Ataturk’s grand Republic are dying out. In solidarity, we should stand with those who mounted this brave revolution against AKP and Erdogan, to protect Kemalism and the Turkish Republic’s hard-won gains.


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Nicol Ogston 1 Article
Nicol is highly critical of the current constitutional debates surrounding the UK and EU's futures. Having completed a degree in History and Politics at Edinburgh University, he now spends his time explaining some of the political issues facing Europe and the Middle East.

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