Straddling Europe and Asia, with a Muslim population and a secular government, Turkey faces extraordinary political, economic and social pressures. Its secular-minded military has led at least three government takeovers since 1960, not counting its nonviolent "post-modern coup" in 1997 that chased an Islamist party from power. The military’s influence was thought to have abated under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, which took power in 2002.
1. Who is Erdogan?
Erdogan (pronounced EHR-do-ahn) was a member of the Islamist party when he led Istanbul as mayor in the 1990s. After being barred from politics and sent to prison, he emerged as the leader of a movement that seeks to strike a balance between Islam and modernization. He was prime minister from 2003 to 2014, which included an era of rapid economic growth. As Turkey’s president since then, he’s been seeking to add executive powers to what had been a mostly ceremonial post, and been accused by critics of building a cult of personality.
2. Why did the military revolt?
It’s not clear, especially why now. Erdogan has trimmed the military’s influence, and the military establishment was embarrassed by an Erdogan-driven prosecution of some of their ranks in 2013 for plotting a coup, a conviction that was ultimately overturned in Turkey’s courts. Erdogan has also committed Turkey’s army to an active and perilous role in Syria’s war and intensified a longstanding military campaign against Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. Erdogan himself blamed the coup attempt on supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who once was his ally and now, following a falling out, lives in exile in Pennsylvania.
3. Why has the military been so involved in politics?
The father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a military officer and gave the armed forces a central role in maintaining the secular and western-looking society he envisioned. Ataturk led Turkey from the founding of the post-Ottoman state in 1923 until his death in 1938. Since then, the military has overthrown governments in coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and pressured a fourth out of office in 1997.
4. Why does this have international significance?
Turkey has been part of NATO since 1952 and an associate member of the EU since the 1960s. Sharing borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, it has signed on to the multinational fight against Islamic State, and lets U.S. planes use Turkish air bases. As a result, it’s also been hit by terrorist bombings. "Turkey is perhaps the only country in the world completely surrounded by problems," Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in April.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake explainer on Turkey’s power struggles.
- The plight of the Kurds, the world’s biggest ethnic group without their own state, is explained in this QuickTake.
- A story on Erdogan’s campaign for more presidential powers.