Erdogan’s real opportunity after the failed coup in Turkey

Kemal Kirisci

Kemal Kirisci

The history of Turkish politics is littered with coups and coup attempts that have occurred in roughly ten-year intervals. It is almost a genetic defect.

  • The nascent Turkish democracy experienced its first coup in 1960 when it was barely into its tenth year—led by a group of left-wing “young officers,” who had also forced the General Staff into its ranks. Administrative authority was returned to civilians in October 1961, after having cost the lives of the then-Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fatin Rüştü Zorlu, and the Minister of Finance, Hasan Polatkan.
  • The second military intervention took place in 1971 against the government of Süleyman Demirel—this time around, though, through a “coup by memorandum.” The military issued to the prime minister an ultimatum—to step aside and be replaced by a technocratic cabinet.
  • Less than ten years later, in the midst of endemic violence between left- and right-wing radical groups, the military’s top brass carried out another intervention. This was bloodier than the previous two interventions, costing hundreds of lives and leading to massive human-rights violations. After rubberstamping a suffocating constitution on the country, the military handed the government over to a semblance of a democratically-elected government in 1983.
  • Surprisingly, Turkey broke this pattern of ten-yearly military interventions, and civilian authority continued until 1997, when there was what was termed a “post-modern coup.” The army rolled out a convoy of tanks into the streets of Ankara, and in a repeat of the coup of 1971, demanded the resignation of the coalition government led by Necmettin Erbakan.
  • The next coup occurred a decade later (almost to the day) in April 2007, when the Chief of Staff staged an “e-coup” by posting a set of demands on its website. The coup was a reaction against a long list of democratic reforms that were introduced as a part of the leadership’s pro-EU agenda and were seen as a departure from the staunchly secularist, restrictive mode of governance. Bolstered by the public support for these reforms, however, the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now the current president of Turkey, successfully withstood the “e-coup,” and for the first time, pushed the military back “into the barracks”.

The latest coup attempt—which took place on Friday, July 15—has widely been attributed to a large Gülenist faction within the military and the judiciary that circumvented the established chain of command and held the high command hostage. Gülenists are the followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who leads a worldwide movement that claims to advocate a moderate form of Sunni Islam with an emphasis on tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Formerly allies with Erdoğan, the Gülenists were blamed for spearheading the corruption scandal in December 2013 that engulfed several government officials, ministers and people in Erdoğan’s intimate circle. Since then, Gülen and Erdoğan have been locked in a power struggle.

Back from the brink

Turkish democracy survived a major test, and Turkey turned from the edge of a precipice. The credit for the coup’s defeat goes to the Turkish people, who heeded Erdoğan’s call to resist this intervention “by any means possible and necessary” and filled the squares. TV reports were filled with eye-to-eye, tense, agitated confrontations between civilians and armed soldiers on the two bridges that connect the Asian and European sides of Istanbul. Public restraint and sobriety helped to prevent escalation of violence. There were nevertheless senseless causalities resulting from fire opened by the mutineers and especially attacks mounted on the parliament building as well as the Headquarters of the General Staff. It could have been a lot worse.

Erdoğan needs to rise above a majoritarian understanding of democracy and do justice to the aspirations of a public that heeded his call by pouring into the streets and squares to defeat the coup attempt.

Clearly, Turkey’s democracy has taken a severe blow—cushioned only by the unequivocal stance of the opposition leaders and the media against the coup. Once again, the nation managed to break this pattern of ten-year coups. This offers the country a matchless opportunity for reconciliation. Granted, Erdoğan has had an exceptionally rough weekend and his frustration with those responsible for or implicated in the coup is understandable. He is correct in calling “for their punishment under the full force of the law of the land.” It will, however, now be critical that he ensure that the rule of law is upheld and rises to the challenge of winning the hearts and minds across a deeply polarized nation. He has the tools for it in his repertoire and had successfully wielded them in the past—especially between 2003 and 2011, when he served as prime minister. In hindsight, this period is often referred to as AKP’s “golden age,” when the economy boomed, democracy excelled, and Turkey was touted as a model for those Muslim-majority countries aspiring to transform themselves into liberal democracies.

As he steers the country from the brink of civil war, Erdoğan needs to rise above a majoritarian understanding of democracy and do justice to the aspirations of a public that heeded his call by pouring into the streets and squares to defeat the coup attempt. This is the least that the Turkish public deserves. This would also be a move in the right direction for Turkey’s neighborhood, which desperately needs a respite from the turmoil resulting from the war in Syria, the instability in Iraq, Russia’s territorial ambitions and now Brexit. This is the moment when a stable, democratic, transparent, accountable and prosperous Turkey needs to come to the fore on the world-stage. The United States needs it too. As much as the White House declared its faith in the strength of Turkey’s democracy and its support for the elected leadership, there is a clear chance for forging closer cooperation between the two countries. The first step in cooperation should be in bringing to justice the perpetrators of this coup, followed by measures to enhance Turkey’s capacity to address and manage the many challenges facing Turkey and its neighborhood.

Botswana: An African Lesson in Freedom


Josh Gelernter

Josh Gelernter

Botswana is a true rarity: a free and prosperous post-colonial African country. Fifty years ago this month, Britain surrendered its Bechuanaland protectorate to self-rule — just as it had Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Basutoland (now Lesotho), Kenya, Uganda, Swaziland, Nigeria, Somalia, et cetera. Each of those countries ended up unfree (like Kenya), grossly unfree (like Swaziland), or a hell on Earth (like Somalia). But not Bechuanaland. Bechuanaland held free and fair elections and became Botswana, a country with free elections, a free economy, and a free press. It is a triumph of democracy — and National Review readers, the United States, and the free world should join in celebrating its 50th birthday.

The best way to understand how remarkable Botswana is is to consider its neighbor Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, which became independent of Great Britain just a few months before Bechuanaland. Rhodesia declared itself independent in 1965, under an apartheid-style system of white minority rule. In anticipation of independence, a sub rosa civil war had broken out between the white minority government, the Soviet-backed Zimbabwe African People’s Union, and the China-backed Zimbabwe African National Union. After independence, the civil war intensified considerably, and it lasted until 1978, when a compromise was reached, first to include black participation in government, and then later — under British and U.N. pressure — to allow the participation of the Communist guerrilla leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe. International sanctions — which had been imposed in opposition to minority rule — were lifted for the newly renamed Zimbabwe’s first general election. For a moment in Zimbabwe’s difficult history, it seemed that things were looking up.

Remember: South Africa wouldn’t abolish apartheid for another decade and a half. But then — despite a large international “observer force” — Robert Mugabe began a massive campaign of voter intimidation. He won in a landslide. Among opponents of Mugabe, of corruption, and of Communism, there was an outcry. Mugabe’s response was to murder thousands of Zimbabweans. His Fifth Brigade, which had been trained in North Korea and answered directly to him, was sent to Matabeleland — western Zimbabwe, where anti-Mugabe sentiments were strongest. Over the course of a five-year anti-dissident campaign, the Fifth Brigade murdered between 20,000 and 30,000 people. Afterwards, a new constitution was written, Zimbabwe’s senate was abolished, and new parliamentary elections were held — in which Mugabe’s party won 117 of 120 seats. Mugabe matched his brazen suppression of dissent with Marxist economic reforms. When Zimbabwe’s civil war ended, its future looked bright, and its GDP growth spiked from an annual average of 5 percent (through the civil war and international sanctions) to 10.6 percent in 1980 and 12.5 percent in 1981. Under Mugabe’s leadership, it crashed to an annual average of 2.7 percent. Hoping to distract from the country’s new woes with memories of its old woes, in 1992, Mugabe instituted a mandatory land-reform program, wherein land was confiscated from white farmers and redistributed. Unfortunately, Mugabe didn’t bother to make sure the people he gave farms to were farmers. Thus Mugabe destroyed one of Zimbabwe’s last functional industries.

For the first time since the civil war, the economy dropped into negative growth: – 9 percent for the year 1992. And with agriculture ground to a halt, people began to starve. Of course, even if there had been food to buy, everyone’s money was becoming worthless. For the rest of the decade, Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate averaged 35 percent. In 2001, it jumped to 112 percent. In 2002, it jumped to 200 percent. In 2003, to 600 percent. By 2007, it was 66 thousand percent. By the end of 2008, the inflation rate was 80 billion percent. At that point, one American dollar was worth 2,621,984,228,675,650,147,435,579,309,984,228 Zimbabwean dollars. (If you’re wondering how that number’s pronounced, it’s about two-point-six decillion.) At the 80-billion-percent inflation point, and after another grotesquely fraudulent election, in 2008 Mugabe agreed to start sharing power with some of the remaining opposition. And things stabilized somewhat. Growth is still low, but Mugabe is 92 — so maybe there’s light visible at the end of the tunnel. Of course, what difference does money make, when the police can pick you up, hold you, torture you, and kill you whenever they feel like it? In Zimbabwe, political rights are more or less nonexistent. And that’s if you’re a member of the majority.

Things are — somehow — even worse if you’re not. Mugabe has said, “no white person will be allowed to own land” in his country. He has said some white farmers were so bad, “you would think they were Jews.” (There are only 120 Jews in Zimbabwe.) He says that gay people are “subanimal”; that they “behave worse than dogs and pigs.” “If you see people parading themselves as Lesbians and Gays,” said Mugabe, “arrest them and hand them over to the police.”   But let’s leave Mugabe’s Marxist paradise behind and hop back across the border to Botswana. Despite having to make its own way after escaping colonialism, like so much of Africa and the world, Botswana has a higher GDP per capita than several countries in Europe. (Zimbabwe has a GDP per capita only slightly higher than Afghanistan’s.) Botswana’s GDP has grown steadily ever since independence — during which time its people have enjoyed both the presence of a free market and the absence of corruption.

According to the Heritage Foundation, Botswana has a freer economy than Norway, Spain, and Belgium. (Zimbabwe’s economy is freer only than Venezuela’s, Cuba’s, and North Korea’s.) And, more importantly, if any citizen of Botswana objects to any of that — if he’d like, say, a Botswanan Bernie Sanders in office — he could write an op-ed, hold a rally, or go vote. All without fear of arrest or reprisal. Botswana is a free country in a tragically unfree world. It’s not perfect (if you’re reading this, Botswana — you could treat your Bushmen better); nonetheless, in its own way, it’s a light unto the nations: a testament to democracy’s power to overcome any challenge — even the adversity that accompanied the birth of most modern African nations. Perhaps even more acutely, it’s a testament to every Botswanan leader — every Botswanan George Washington — who could have seized power like Mugabe and destroyed his country, but chose instead to respect the rule of law and let his country thrive. Happy birthday, Botswana. And many more.