Coup Was ‘Gift From God’ for Erdogan Planning a New Turkey

Will Erdogan Use Coup Attempt to His Advantage?
  • Purges, arrests and a likely concentration of power coming
  • Secular elite watching internecine fighting from sidelines

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised "a new Turkey" after Friday’s failed coup. Its shape had already been emerging but the amateurish takeover attempt, which Erdogan called "a gift from God," gives him additional tools to realize it.

He has made clear that the country he plans would be different in two fundamental ways: power would be concentrated in the hands of the president, and the old secular elites would have a lesser political role. Whether overseas markets will cooperate remains a big question given that Turkey has one of the highest current-account deficits among G-20 countries.

The "legacy of a pluralistic, secular, modern society appears to be fading away, replaced by what increasingly appears to be a one-party democracy," said Gary Greenberg, lead portfolio manager for emerging markets at Hermes Asset Management in London.

The old Turkey’s story is well known: Secularists ran the state and the military which intervened from time to time to cut the religious conservative majority down to size when it gained too much electoral power.

Friday’s coup attempt has put a very different country on display, analysts noted, one in which not only the target of the coup but also the alleged plotters are religious conservatives. With secularists apparently on the sidelines, Erdogan now appears to see his chief threat as a former ally: the U.S.-based religious leader Fethullah Gulen.

‘Parallel Structure’

When the coup attempt began, Erdogan immediately accused the "parallel structure" -- a reference to Gulen and his followers -- of instigating it. The secularist Republican People’s Party condemned the military’s intervention. The Dogan media group, for years Erdogan’s secularist bete noire, put him on TV (using Facetime) to let the country know he was still in charge.

Within hours of the coup’s failure, 2,800 soldiers and officers had been arrested. On Sunday, Erdogan pledged to cleanse the country of the Gulenist "virus." Gulen has denied any involvement, accusing Erdogan of staging the coup himself.

Erdogan now looks set to assert full control over the institutions of state and change Turkey’s hybrid political system, concentrating power in the presidency, rather than in parliament.

He will be helped by the wave of support the coup attempt has produced from ardent followers. On Friday night they were brought onto the streets by Muezzin, who called non-stop from minarets across the country. That encouraged Islamist youth to go out, giving opposition to the coup a religious overtone. Secularists stayed home.

‘Not Our War’

"I’m not going to run in front of a tank to protect Erdogan," said a 38-year-old Istanbul advertising executive, who declined to be named. "Educated, westernized Turks, we have no stake in this country. What happened was not our war. "

On Sunday, Erdogan’s supporters turned out in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district to hear a speech by the president, surrounded by aides and turbaned imams. "We want the death penalty," chanted the crowd. Celebratory honking could be heard across Istanbul until late in the night, while tens of thousands obeyed his request to keep vigil on the streets and squares.

That fervor has already given Erdogan the means to purge the judiciary, without having to provide evidence of individual wrongdoing. By Sunday, more than 6,000 people had been arrested, according to Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, adding that the number would rise. Among the detained are 2,700 judges.

Erdogan appears to want to keep the public zeal alive. In Fatih he also told his supporters to "fill up the squares. This is not a situation to let rest. This is not just a 12-hour operation. We will continue determinedly."

Naunihal Singh, author of "Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups," and an assistant professor at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, said: "It sounds like he’s trying to engage in mobilization to shape the post-coup world."

‘A Very Risky Game’

Singh also said Erdogan’s mass purge constitutes "a very risky game" because "it creates civil-military unrest, especially if they feel they’re facing physical mob violence. It’s a conscription army, so these are average Turkish citizens, and they’re getting beaten up."

Next on the agenda will be to ram through constitutional change that would transfer powers from the parliament to the presidency, says Attila Yesilada, an Istanbul-based financial consultant. That’s something Erdogan has been trying to do since he became president in 2014, but has been unable to carry through because he lacks the necessary votes in parliament.

"I expect him to present parliament with a fait accompli: Either agree to a referendum on constitutional reform, or I will call early elections," said Yesilada. Given sympathy from the coup attempt and the growing electoral weakness of two opposition parties -- the Nationalist Movement Party and the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party -- Erdogan could now hope to win the parliamentary supermajority he needs, according to Yesilada.

The scale of Erdogan’s ambitions has been clear since at least 2011. He campaigned then on a platform to transform the country in part through a series of massive construction projects by 2023, the 100th anniversary of modern Turkey’s founding by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

‘Pious Generations’

Erdogan went on to promise to create "pious generations," reversing Ataturk’s mission to secularize Turkey. Erdogan has dramatically increased the number of religious schools in Turkey and expanded religious education in ordinary secondary schools. That has led to fears among some that Erdogan wants to create an Islamic republic, something he has always strongly denied.

Among Erdogan’s 2023 goals was to become one of the world’s top 10 economies, with a gross domestic product of $2 trillion (from $720 billion today). A slowing economy, massive bureaucracy and judicial checks and balances on issues such as environmental impact have frustrated those goals.

"From Erdogan’s point of view," says Yesilada, "if only he could have control over judiciary and economic institutions, he would be able to fix the economy and invest in the projects he desires." In the wake of Friday’s dramatic events, he appears to be closer to securing that control.

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