The main question for me has always been who is on the side of democracy, the office of President Erdogan, or the coup plotters. On the night of the attempted coup, I backed Erdogan simply because he was elected. But further analysis since, suggests the plotters had admirable goals. They wanted to return to the secular democracy that is enshrined in the constitution rather than the Islamisation of the country that has taken place. Under Erdogan, it is said by US Senator John McCain that there are more journalists detained in Turkey even than in Iran, such is the state’s contempt for Articles 25 and 26 of the constitution about freedom of thought and its dissemination, and opinion. Erdogan is also now seizing extra powers to allow the Presidency to overrule the Parliament, suggesting there is little regard here for democracy.
A bugging question remains however, did the plotters have the support of the population, or at least a large part of it? If not, that would always make a coup worse than putting up with an elected dictator, because such a coup would be bound to degenerate into even worse authoritarianism.
The editor of spiked Brendan O’Neill, contemplating this issue, wrote shortly after the event that the coup “lacked roots in society; it lacked a connection with any kind of public” and was just the action of a “few thousand conscripts.” In which case, it would be indicative of a broader theory espoused by spiked – that the public are apathetic in relation to attacks on formal democracy and they need to be re-energised to believe in ‘Enlightenment values’.
But actually the coup did command support from a wide section of the population. Why else have there been 70,000 arrests, removals, and suspensions of people in the judiciary, media, education, healthcare, and other sectors? It is reasonable to assume these 70,000 are just the tip of the iceberg in relation to the desire to topple Erdogan, so it’s more than just a ‘few thousand conscripts.’ Although Erdogan’s popularity has apparently grown since he defeated the coup, domestically this is explained as a misleading statistic of an opinion poll of 1275 Turks who approved of him to the tune of 67%, an opinion poll conducted under an official ‘State of Emergency’ where the small sample might feel intimidated to give a correct answer. And internationally, Erdogan is favoured because of his tough stance against Russia and his support for Islamist fighters in Syria entirely glossed over, such is both the Turkish Presidency and the international community’s faux concern over ‘human rights.’ On the night of the coup, although Western media has painted the thousands who took to the streets as in defence of Erdogan, the truth is far from clear how many supported him and how many were supporting the coup – for example, in some pictures it appears as if the protestors are riding the coup’s tanks in support rather than attempting to stall them.
It is also reported that yesterday a ‘few hundred thousand’ turned up at a pro-Erdogan rally – yet the organisers were expecting 3-3.5m, the actual number fell far short. Just because the anti-Erdogan camp are not shouting their anger at him does not mean it does not exist – they likely fear for their safety and exist only in individuated ways because of the climate of state terror.
A key thing to understand is the question whether the military were acting as representatives of the state or as representatives of the people. The military always embodies these two things but in different ratios at different times: thus in 1974-5 in Portugal, an army rebellion toppled a fascist dictatorship. And again in 2011, the Egyptian military rallied behind the people in toppling Mubarak, before sadly later switching sides and clamping down on the democracy they had previously championed.
Obviously what needs to happen is for the Turks and Kurds to loudly express their voice, but this won’t be helped by all the congratulations of Erdogan or fretting about a ‘crisis of liberal values.’ On the latter, the changes that are taking place in the middle east ought not be measured by yardsticks of stable liberal democracies in the West, but by what kind of vision for a democratic future the struggles on the ground invoke, even if imperfect. The only thing that’s crystal clear is that more Erdoganism is the road to greater imperfection.