Further repression will worsen Turkey’s situation
Coup attempt underlines the dangers posed by the deepening divisions in Turkish society
After a night of unprecedented violence, the one indisputable fact known about the failed coup against Turkey’s government is the heavy death toll it exacted.
The shape of the plot — in which soldiers took over bridges, airports and broadcasters; parked tanks around government buildings; and put out a statement promising to restore constitutional order — would have been familiar to Turks with memories of the last “hard” military coup in 1980.
Yet while that coup was largely unopposed, few in Turkey now want the armed forces to interfere with elected governments. Leaders of all political parties were swift to condemn the attempt.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s autocratic president, is a deeply polarising figure, but it was not only supporters of his AK Party who answered his call (delivered, somewhat ignominiously, by a FaceTime video and text message) to defy the curfew and come on to the streets.
The government has now declared victory, but this is very far from being a victory for Turkish democracy.
The uprising underlines the dangers posed by the deepening divisions in Turkish society. Mr Erdogan retains the passionate support of around half the country’s electorate, but he has made no concessions to the concerns of other groups.
In the absence of effective parliamentary opposition, he has stifled the media, stamped on street protests and purged rivals from state institutions and his own party. He has proved willing to play the nationalist card for electoral gain — reigniting the smouldering conflict in the Kurdish south east.
And he is now intent on constitutional changes that would further cement his grip on power.
This is an environment in which many people fear the erosion of democratic institutions, and in which frustrations can easily spill over into violence. There is no denying the courage of the people who tackled tanks and armed soldiers in Istanbul and Ankara on Friday night; but there have also been some reports of ugly reprisals against young soldiers who had surrendered.
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What is clear is that further repression will worsen the situation. Mr Erdogan is already threatening reprisals, calling the coup a “gift from God” since it presents an opportunity to clean up the army.
Yet factional infighting has already weakened Turkey’s police and security forces, which have struggled to counter terrorist attacks by Syrian jihadis and Kurdish rebels. A fresh purge could be a damaging distraction. This has implications beyond Turkey’s borders. One of the few functioning democracies in a volatile region, the country is an indispensable ally for the US in Syria and for the EU in handling the migration crisis. Its stability matters, and it is under threat.
The risk now is that Mr Erdogan — ever ready to see conspirators against him — will feel vindicated; and will win support for the drive to enhance his powers. He would do better to recognise that winning elections is not enough to preserve democracy; and show restraint.