Last night, to cap off what has already been a tumultuous week, there was a failed coup attempt in Turkey as factions within the military tried to seize control and oust President Erdogan.
While the event itself was completely out-of-the-blue, the circumstances leading up to it were years in the making – even though many of it was rarely reported here in Western media.
Here’s a summary of what happened last night, how things got to this stage and where things will go from here.
Last night’s events
Late last night, parts of the Turkish military mobilised in an attempt to depose President Erdogan of power by seizing control of key communications outlets and by placing military hardware on show – including putting tanks on bridges across the symbolic Bosphorus Strait & international airport in Istanbul and flying fighter jets in the skies above the nation’s capital Ankara.
The army released messages over TV and radio that they have taken control to restore democratic order to the country in the face of what they saw as an unfit regime.
After a failed attempt to fly into Istanbul airport, President Erdogan addressed the nation over Facetime (picked up by CNN Turkey, which managed to stay on air as occupying soldiers failed to maintain control) urging supporters to take to the streets and voice their opposition to the coup.
Buoyed by popular support, the police forces began raids against soldier positions and many supporters of the Government took to the streets to make public demonstration against the ongoing attempt.
Eventually Erdogan made a successful landing in Istanbul where he was welcomed by thousands of supporters who had gathered there. This was the point where it became clear that the coup was not going to be successful.
The key solider positions were then abandoned, with many either leaving post or surrendering to police officers on scene.
Ultimately, over 161 people were killed throughout Turkey last night and over 3,000 soldiers have been arrested.
Turkey’s formation back in the 1920s was grounded in the principle of secularism, whereby the Government does not interfere with people’s religious rights and does not promote religious values. This was key to the country’s father figure and first President Ataturk and is a principle that has came under pressure numerous times in a country that is overwhelmingly Islamic.
The military has throughout Turkey’s history seen itself as a defender of the Constitution and particularly the secularist element of it, and has instigated coups before against leadership that it has seen as too Islamic in nature.
The current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been in power since 2002 and has assumed what many opposition forces refer to as a ‘dictatorial’ Presidency. Under his leadership, human rights in Turkey have been consistently under threat – with the freedom of minorities and of the press increasingly being curbed. Many in Turkey feel that the President is moving the country in the wrong direction but President Erdogan and his Government have introduced a wide-ranging authoritarian set of laws that allow them to quash opposition strongly, which have been described internationally as an affront to democracy.
Crucially, developments in recent years have seen Turkey make small shifts towards being a more Islamic nation – with President Erdogan’s Government lifting bans on wearing traditional Islamic dress in schools and Government buildings as well as encouraging more formal Islamic education.
This coincides with a relative inaction from Turkey regarding the Islamic State threat that is going on just miles from the Turkish border with Syria. Turks feel rightly aggrieved that their Government isn’t doing enough to fight the ungodly terrorists that are operating nearby, especially when they are capable of such as atrocities as the Istanbul airport attack a matter of weeks ago that killed 36, and the October & March bombings in Ankara that killed over 140 people.
Why the coup failed
Coups d’ etat need a combination of military, political and popular support to succeed, and they all need to be pushing in the same direction at the same time, and last night’s effort in Turkey only really had some military support, with key figures at the head of military command staying loyal to the Government. Opposition parties were relatively quick to denounce what was happening and the thousands of people that took to the streets after Erdogan’s call showed that the people of Turkey weren’t on side either.
This entirely undermined the coup, as without the momentum that needed to be built explosively fast there was a quick realisation that even if they managed to take control of key functions of Government for a short time they wouldn’t be able to hold on. That’s why we saw surrenders just a matter of hours after the tanks started rolling.
Launching such an attempt in Turkey was extremely ambitious, with the country’s governmental frameworks being well-inforced as you’d expect of a modern nation. To be successful a coup needs to take control of as many facets of power as possible and provide a viable alternative that the population, and outgoing Government, either will not or cannot overrun. Despite the show of military hardware, the coup plotters did not sufficiently take charge of Government power or media outlets because it was so dispersed and so resilient. They also failed to stop President Erdogan rally his supporters and this massively bolstered public opposition that led to the military separatists backing down so quickly.
Even if the coup succeeded, international support was not there as NATO allies all called for restrained and respect for Turkey’s democratically-elected Government. While there are indeed questions about its’ democratic credentials, for now it’s not proven enough to have justified the bold steps taken last night.
On the whole, while Erdogan is definitely despised by many both within and outwith his country, the only way of deposing him in a way that would have provided the desired result will be at the ballot box, and that’s what made last night’s drama fruitless.
What happens now?
The coup attempt has showed that there is significant opposition, although perhaps not enough, against President Erdogan and his reforms – and the scale of that opposition will never be in doubt in future while the coup remains fresh in the mind.
Those who took part in the coup have already either been killed or have been jailed with harsh sentences to come. While Turkey abolished the death penalty back in 2004, there are early soundings from the Prime Minister that it could be re-introduced with the coup plotters in mind – something that President Erdogan has already suggested in recent years.
With Erdogan managing to ward off the attempts to depose him it has the chance of making his power stronger, as the country rallies around its’ leader to provide the support he needs.
The interesting part will be in which way Erdogan’s policy vision for Turkey will swing now; will it be more radical, with increased Islamification of the country, or more conservative, with more action against the Islamic State (painting them as the enemy) and less domestic reform.
Control over Turkey has not changed from where it was 24 hours ago, but the nation has been shaken by the night’s events and now enters a new era. It’s up to Erdogan now how he responds, and the actions of his Government will have far-reaching implications for the EU, which he is trying to court, and the conflict with the Islamic State, which he is doing very little to address.