What last year’s failed coup meant for civil-military relations and democracy in Turkey

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the failed coup in Turkey. On July 15th 2016, a faction of the Turkish Armed Forces, under the name of Peace at Home Council, attempted to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from power. It was a historical moment in Turkish civil-military relations and marked the extent to which the balance of power has changed between these two groups. It’s legacy will largely be one of bolstering the President continuous power grab and crackdown on any opposition.

It is important to understand the history of the Turkish military in politics to appreciate how far the forces have fallen. Seen as the guardians of Ataturk’s legacy and protectorates of the secularist values as enshrined in the Constitution, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) once enjoyed significant influence in Turkish politics. Crucially, they also had a legal framework for intervention: as per Section 35 of their Internal Service Code, it was the duty of the TAF to “protect the Turkish homeland, by arms when necessary, against internal and external threat”. What they perceived to be ‘internal threats’ lead the military to stage a coup in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, and although the TAF did not seek to stay in power indefinitely, it nonetheless retained considerable channels of influence within government. One key example was that of the National Security Council, whose recommendations to the government in their monthly meetings were expected to be implemented. As one naval admiral put it “the government may not implement the decisions, but then they must be ready to pay the price.” They also had strong public support.; in 1996, trust for the military was reportedly far greater that than of politicians, at 16.6% as opposed to 81.3%.

This is a far cry from the current political climate that exists in Turkey – since the AKP took office the military’s influence and power has been greatly diminished. In 2002-2004 the country witnessed the largest number of reforms passed under any government in Turkish history, which included putting military spending under civilian oversight and amending the Constitution so that the National Security Council would instead have an “advisory role” over security policy, rather than its decisions being given “priority consideration”.  This push back continued, andiIn 2007 an even more signifacant barrier to Erdogan’s power was removed as the then President Ahmet Necdet Sezer – seen as a key ally to the military – was replaced by the AKP’s Abdullah Gül. From the military’s perspective, Gül as president not only removed a vital check against AKP government power but resulted in a headscarved first lady; seen to be an outrageous attack against the secularist nature of the state. It was nevertheless understood that to move against this democratic election would be hugely unpopular by the Turkish population. Fast forward to 2013, even the TAF Internal Law was changed to remove what was seen to be the legal pretext of military intervention.

History usually tells us that as military forces withdraw from power, there is greater potential for democratic governance and for civil society to flourish. But in Turkey’s case, the military’s retreat from certain channels of power did not result in a move by the government to further democratise the country. Instead, Erdogan used their weakness to strengthen his hand and crackdown on dissent. Between 2008-2010 hundreds were detained within the military accused of being part of ‘Ergenekon’, an alleged clandestine, ultranationalist group.  Although many observers believe there was, to an extent, a culture of immunity enjoyed by certain members of the forces, the Ergenekon trials nevertheless created a pretext to clamp down civil society. Erdogan called for a shut down of YouTube and Twitter, moves were made against the independence of the judiciary and thousands of journalists were, as they continue to be, jailed. The 2013 Gezi Park protests were also a flashpoint, as police officers used water cannons and rubber bullets to disturb the peace protests; tactics which continue to be used against similar protests, including this year’s Pride March. Despite calls from some of those protesting in Gezi, the army did not intervene.


The armed forces were too weak and disunited when they tried to stage last year’s coup, and were operating in an entirely different political climate. Rather than creating a sense of insecurity in the government, Erdogan vowed retribution against those involved and used the continued state of emergency to move against all opposition, blaming the Gulen group of masterminding the coup. A former close ally of Erdogan, Fethullah Gulen is a cleric exiled in the U.S., leading the Hizmet movement. Advocating a moderate interpretation of Islam, the group has a significant amount of global influence via its schools, think tanks and publications. Now regarded as a threat, Erdogan has moved against anyone perceived to be affiliated with Gulen, and in a similar vein to the Ergenekon trials, has also used it as a pretext for moving against opposition more generally.


As part of the state of emergency after the coup, the government reintroduced incommunicado detention, shut down at least 156 media outlets and an estimated 2,500 journalists lost their jobs. The situation a year on is no different, with Turkey continuing  to hold the record for the number of journalists in jail at 81, surpassing Eritrea, China and Iran. Using their controversial anti-terror laws, now a principal bone of contention in the E.U. accession talks, political activists and academics continue to face imprisonment. Over 100,000 public officials and civil servants have now been dismissed without recourse to investigation.


Erdogan is quoted as having reportedly compared democracy to a streetcar, “you ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off”. This is the legacy of the failed coup, as it served merely to increase the President’s political capital, further his dictatorial style of governance and create yet another pretext to silence the voices of those who speak against him.


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