When the sonic boom from low flying jets shattered windows in Istanbul early on the morning of July 16, a city jumped out of its skin. The first reaction was stunned disbelief that, 36 years after the Turkish military last seized power from an elected government, anyone might try again. This time not all the military joined in the coup, and the police remained loyal. But it was popular anger which forced the putschists to retreat.
In the days that followed, the government tried to orchestrate an upbeat mood. Fares were lifted on public transport to encourage people to go out and about, but also to attend nightly rallies to denounce the coup. But the realization was just around the corner that a reckoning would ensue.
Turkey at the time of the 1980 coup was on the brink of collapse. Far from being part of the global economy, even to own a dollar bill was a criminal offence. Today, conventional wisdom says that no big economy dependent on foreign flows can afford a military takeover. By the same calculation, a failed coup will extract a price.
Turkey is gradually returning to normal – but it is a new normal, in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more powerful, and the nation over which he presides more vulnerable.
For the last three years Erdogan has been leading his country down an authoritarian path. He has made no secret of his ambition to transform Turkey from a parliamentary democracy into one in which an executive president has the first and last word.
Now, without having to change the constitution, Erdogan’s wish is coming true. His government imposed a state of emergency, initially for 90 days, to root out the coup perpetrators. It is allowing habeas corpus to be suspended for 30 days, and has allowed for the abrogation of Turkey’s adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. The government can rule by decree.
This may be the understandable reaction of a president who managed to flee a seaside resort an hour before jet fighters locked on to his hotel. But there are enough worrying signs that the authorities are rounding up more than the usual suspects – in this case the alleged followers of a preacher, Fethullah Gulen who is accused of organizing the coup from his exile in rural Pennsylvania. Having tasted the powers he craved, Erdogan may find them difficult to surrender.
'With its large army now in disarray, and its intelligence force discredited, Turkey is in no position to pick fights with its allies'
The world rightly viewed a coup attempt with horror but many of Turkey’s partners already regarded the erosion of civil liberties in Turkey with concern. Post-failed-coup, they will see a government that rules with the waving banners of its supporters because it will not or cannot forge a consensus. Last year, the president shredded attempts to pursue a peace process with the Kurds in the southeast of Turkey in order to call an early election rather than see his party forced into a power-sharing coalition. Now, Turkey may be locked into yet more positions that undermine its own interests.
The Turkish economy bustles, but growth still depends on consumption and foreign borrowing. While in the short term, investors may be prepared to brave political risk, no one believes that a government scrambling to reward its supporters will engage in the sort of structural reform that will encourage longer term investment. One of its first post-coup measures was to demand the resignation of 1,600 university deans. The judiciary and civil service are being purged, and even the private sector is not immune.
The coup attempt occurred at a time when Turkey appeared on the verge of adopting a less dogmatic foreign policy. It was finally making its peace with Israel six years after the notorious Mavi Marmara boat-jacking incident; it swallowed its pride by apologizing to Russia over the shooting down last November of an Su-24 attack aircraft on the Syrian border. There were even signs that Turkey was preparing to take a less doctrinaire line in its opposition to Bashar al-Assad by seeing Islamic State as the greater threat.
Yet Turkey now may be fighting with its friends. Ankara is demanding the extradition of Gulen from the United States. But this is likely to prove impossible from a country that did not even extradite IRA suspects to Britain.
With its large army now in disarray, and its intelligence force discredited, Turkey is in no position to pick fights with its allies. Turkey, no less than other countries, has been prey to terrorist attacks, including by Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Who, its allies rightly ask, is now minding the store?
Turkey is unlikely to restore the death penalty for the coup plotters, a move which would alienate Ankara not just from the European Union, but also from the Council of Europe – of which even Azerbaijan is a member. Yet despite its show of unity in the face of the putschists – the main opposition parties also staged a rally against the coup– Turkey has much ground to cover if it is to convince the world it can again become a trusted and stable pluralist democracy.