On July 15, 2016, a bloody military coup attempt rocked Turkey. A year later, the country is still reeling from this shock and from the massive purge initiated by the government afterward. Both internally and internationally, Turkey is in bigger trouble than a year ago. More importantly, the coup has offered the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Turkish president an opportunity to forge ahead with their religious-conservative societal agenda despite substantial popular opposition, while eliminating dissent and debate from political life.
In domestic terms, the large-scale degradation of Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture seems to have no end in sight. Nearly 140,000 government employees have been dismissed, including members of the military, police, judges, and academics, while more than 50,000 people are in jail, among them many journalists, intellectuals, human-rights activists, and businesspeople. More than 2,000 schools and universities have been shut down. Media have been closed. Businesses have been seized and their assets transferred to the state.
The government initially attributed the coup solely to the movement of preacher Fethullah Gülen. But there is a new tendency to lump together three organizations labeled as “terrorist” under Turkey’s current state of emergency—the Gülenists, the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the self-proclaimed Islamic State—although it is hard to identify structural links between these three entities.
Given the nature of the purge, which consists essentially of cleansing the state structures of members of a secret society that was first introduced by the government itself, there is no measurable end result to such a political cleansing exercise. Under the emergency law, almost anything can be deemed to be treason or terrorism.
In addition, the strategy of force Ankara uses against Turkey’s Kurds—destroying entire swathes of Kurdish cities and jailing democratically elected parliamentarians of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—sows more hatred for generations to come. A previous AKP government, by contrast, had launched a peace process with the Kurdish leadership.
By Western standards, Turkish democracy has been shattered, and most democratic safeguards—the high election board, the constitutional court, and the parliament—have ceased to play their normal roles. An interesting indicator of the situation will be the effect of the peaceful Ankara–Istanbul March for Justice concluded on July 9 by the main opposition leader. The march was a rare instance in which the ruling party’s strategy of branding even mild dissent as “terrorism” was challenged outside the parliament in a nonviolent way.
On the international scene, Ankara’s post-coup policies have estranged Turkey from its traditional allies: the United States, by confronting the U.S. strategy in the Syrian war; the EU, by using the union as a convenient if imaginary foe; Germany, by fueling a series of controversies; and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, by opposing them in their recent diplomatic dispute with Qatar. Even with Russia, the relationship is one in which Moscow is scoring points with a weakened Ankara, rather than a partnership between equals.
One of the most challenging issues for Turkey is the continuation and possible expansion of its military operations in Syria. While keen to remain a full part of the Astana peace talks led by Russia, Ankara is pursuing its own objectives against the Syrian Kurdish forces, essentially to avoid a unification of the Kurdish districts south of the Turkish border at a time when both Russia and the United States have lent their support to a form of autonomy for the Syrian Kurds. Further complications may lie ahead if Ankara decides to extend its operations against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Overall, Turkey is now in crisis at home and abroad. But there is more at stake than meets the eye.
Behind post-coup corrective measures and the goal of one-man rule lies the AKP’s ambition to impose conservative societal norms on all of society. In the nearly twelve years between the first AKP government taking office (November 2002) and the direct election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Turkish president (August 2014), the leadership never had the opportunity to impose wide-ranging religious-conservative norms on a society that basically remains equally split between secularism and conservatism.
The June 2015 legislative election reflected this equilibrium between the two strands in society, as the AKP lost the parliamentary majority it had held since 2002. But instead of moving toward coexistence, the leadership chose to deny this political reality and interrupted talks on forming a coalition government. It then used the state of emergency and the April 2017 constitutional referendum to impose fundamental changes that the secularists oppose.
The Turkish leadership is enforcing a Turkey-centric religious-conservative agenda on the country: from allowing graduates of religious schools to enroll in military academies to constructing a mosque in each public educational institution; from suspending an education cooperation program with the EU to eliminating Darwin’s teachings from school curricula; from cleansing the language of imported words to withdrawing Turkish state television from the Euronews consortium. These moves amount to a tectonic shift in Turkey’s modern history.
However, on societal issues, coexistence, and justice, Turkish society is much more resilient than the leadership seems to think. This opposition to autocratic leadership does not stem from terrorist organizations or foreign governments but is rooted in plain dissent from most secularists and a significant number of conservatives. Forging ahead with a one-man-rule system with no checks and balances is therefore a risky proposition.
This strategy will be all the more hazardous because on current trends, Turkey will be increasingly estranged from its main allies and economic partners. Both the EU and NATO entertain serious doubts about the sustainability of recent or announced policy choices on constitutional and military issues. In addition, EU leaders are mesmerized by the Turkish president’s views on media freedom and the rule of law.
That said, the Turkish president’s political standing at home remains high, due to his successful economic policy during the past fourteen years, even taking into account lower electoral performances in recent years. The overall economic transformation of the country remains impressive and is the best political guarantee for the ruling party.
In its history, Turkey has often battled with ethnic violence, religious tensions, and political strife. What is dangerous this time is that the necessities of continued political predominance at home are pushing the leadership into unsafe domestic choices and foreign adventures. In many ways, Ankara’s policy decisions since July 15, 2016, have put Turkey in a bigger danger than the failed coup itself.