For anyone closely connected to Turkish politics, the British drama that has – to some extent rightly – been attached to the EU referendum had about it, at all times, a political equivalent of first world problems. As the Turkish military, on the night of 15 July, went about enacting its first coup since 1980, the sentiment could not be more overwhelming.
Information from Turkey is never reliable. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has long intimidated all factions of the media, eventually going on to seize those outlets that retained even the slightest trace of outspokenness. Whoever has control of communications, be it the government or the military, there is never any assumption of accuracy in official reporting. That a coup is never good, and always anti-democratic, goes without saying. It is no less true that the AKP party has disregarded all of the tenets of democracy apart from holding, by and large, fair elections in an otherwise fiercely anti-democratic state.
Many Turks will have wished for this moment, perhaps not quite expecting it to come, and not thinking fully of its consequences. The AKP is widely loathed, not by enough people to lose power at the ballot box, but certainly by sufficient numbers that many in Turkey will have cautiously wanted, if not a return to the days of coups, then at least the restoration of some powers that would have traditionally guarded its secular, republican state – founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 – from the erosion that the AKP has meted out against it. It is not an excuse for a military presence in politics, but it is nonetheless necessary that western audiences be conscious that the role of the Turkish military, paradoxically, was in part to protect a secular democracy.
Turkey’s significant diaspora – those living in London, in Berlin – now have a simpler time of it. It is easy to wish for the restoration of what you perceive to be good in your country, without the presence of camouflage and artillery on your streets and fighter jets flying overhead. Turkey itself is a nation of tribes and factions, and the AKP is by no means without supporters who would not ordinarily be averse to violence in the name of their chosen side. Whether that will be so in the face of a military presence and martial law, it remains to be seen. For those who are understandably quick to point out that a coup is always a political nadir, it is worth considering the effects of a police state where civilian law enforcement has, for many years, administered no lesser power than the military will now seek to. The word “coup” grips viscerally at us where a totalitarian state, observed from a distance, can seem stable no matter the chaos, violence and injustice it visits upon those living under it.
Both sides, neither with any commitment to democracy as it should be, will seek to claim the title of “democratic”. But this will be for the view of the international community; the AKP will point to their democratic mandate, the military to their historical role as guardians of a democratic state. Affairs in Turkey will now, for a while, be determined by power alone. Erdogan, who has wielded power over so much media, has now addressed the nation via Skype and from a smartphone. This is as clear a statement as any that he has lost power. His incitation for his supporters to pour onto the streets (while he remains in a hidden location), is as typical of Turkish politics as it is unhelpful. The ideal scenario is a military intervention to safeguard a democratic state that had turned totalitarian, followed by a withdrawal and the return to power of a democratically elected government with their wings clipped; a restoration of rule of law, pluralism, rights, free speech – democracy as it should be. Whatever happens, it is unlikely to be so neat.