Erdogan Will Need to Liberalize Turkey to Survive
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey seems to be taking increasingly extreme measures in reaction to the thwarted coup last weekend. Yet Turkey may be forced to democratize following the attempted military takeover and Erdogan's purges. Coups, both successful and failed, have been shown to increase the likelihood of democratization in authoritarian countries.
Research by Clayton Thyne of the University of Kentucky and Jonathan Powell of the University of Central Florida showed that in countries where coups have been successful, "leaders have incentives to democratize quickly in order to establish political legitimacy and economic growth." And in countries such as Turkey that have experienced failed coups, these events are "credible signals that leaders must enact meaningful reforms to remain in power."
Erdogan has long engaged in practices known as coup-proofing. Primarily, the moderate Islamist has strengthened the police at the expense of the traditionally secularist military. The 190,000-strong police force is one-third the size of the army, it's well-trained and well-equipped, and it is led by cadres loyal to the regime.
Under Erdogan, the roles of the police forces's intelligence department and of the separate intelligence service, the MIT, have grown. They, too, have been filled with loyalists. The regime has done its best to foster political divisions within the military, and systematic restrictions on secularist media have given Erdogan more control over what the Turkish public sees and hears.
Some of these measures worked. The coup plotters found no support within the military outside their own faction, and loyal police officers fought the rebellious military units. The media strategy didn't work as well -- it was a secularist media company that first allowed Erdogan to address the nation on the night of the coup.
Erdogan has clearly decided to take no chances. By Thursday, 9,194 people had been arrested, according to the Hurriyet newspaper. Of these, 1,000 were police officers -- the president mistrusts even those largely loyal forces. Along with 7,500 arrests in the military, there have been tens of thousands of suspensions and firings in the education system, judiciary and government bureaucracy. Erdogan, who has blamed a longtime opponent, the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, for the coup, is likely working from lists of suspected Gulenists. In the education system, he appears to be trying to weed out secularism and may be planning to install more religion-friendly deans and teachers.
On Thursday, he initiated a three-month emergency regime -- which essentially allows direct presidential rule, giving Erdogan powers he lacks under the constitution. Turkey has also suspended its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, probably meaning that some form of extrajudicial punishment will be applied. All of this is scaring away investors, who are dumping Turkish bonds. The lira is down sharply, and the purges have given rise to speculation that Erdogan might be moving toward an Islamic republic.
These measures give no indication that the failed coup is going to pave the way for more democracy. And yet democratization is a likely longer-term outcome.
Working with a dataset of all successful and attempted coups in authoritarian countries between 1950 and 2008, Thyne and Powell showed in a 2014 paper that successful coups can provide the shock that is "almost always necessary to budge staunchly authoritarian regimes off their continued path of repression." Failed coups often have a similar effect, they wrote:
Unlike rebellions and riots, which can be cast off by leaders as mere hooliganism, an attack from other elites within the state serves as a credible signal that the situation must change drastically for the leader to retain power. Even as the leader declares victory for thwarting a coup attempt, he cannot be certain how many plotters continue to exist and whether their antiregime fervor was emboldened or impaired by the attempted coup. This is particularly true given that surviving a coup does not change the underlying conditions that led to the coup in the first place.
Thyne and Powell used the Polity IV index as the measure of democracy. By that standard, Turkey is more democratic than most countries where coups have taken place. A previous experience with democracy is another strong predictor of post-coup democratization.
After surviving a coup, the researchers wrote, a leader could -- and usually did -- engage in coup-proofing, seeking to purge the elite, divide or weaken the military, give more power to loyal units. This, however, usually results in the weakening of the country's military capability, and Turkey cannot afford that: It's waging a war against Kurdish separatists, and it's important for Western efforts in Syria.
Within this logic, Erdogan's crackdown has to be short-lived. He needs to show potential coup plotters that the cost of rebelling can be prohibitively high, but plunging the country into a prolonged period of suspicion, purges, economic uncertainty and military weakness is out of the question if Erdogan wants to consolidate his grip on power.
For the moment, however, the Turkish leader appears to be angry and caught up in short-term thinking. He's lashing out at Europe and the U.S., partly in an attempt to shore up domestic loyalty, and he's looking for potential enemies everywhere. He hasn't, however, held on to power since 2003 by thinking short term. At some point, he will need to think about the underlying reasons for the coup. He'll need to scale back the reprisals and make an effort to lure back investors. Turkey may yet become a less restrictive country than it was before the coup.
That, of course, is only a theoretical possibility. Yet coup-proofing is never 100 percent effective, and unless Erdogan pauses in his fury, he may face a better-organized revolt down the road.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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