5 Questions on the Unrest in Turkey

July 20, 2016
Turkuler Isiksel

Turkuler Isiksel was born in Turkey but left to attend university in Edinburgh, later receiving her Ph.D. from Yale. Trained as a political theorist, she now teaches in the Department of Political Science and is the James P. Shenton assistant professor of the Core Curriculum. She is also a member of the Committee on Global Thought. Columbia News asked her to explain the situation after the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has left the country in disarray. Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency, which would allow him and his cabinet to draft new laws and suspend some individual rights without the approval of the Turkish parliament.

Q. Turkey has had a number of coups since 1960. What makes this latest one stand out from the others?

A. There have been two direct military takeovers of the government, in 1960 and 1980, and two ultimatums issued by the military that brought down the elected governments of the time in 1971 and 1997. Each must be understood in context, but they all reflect the Turkish military’s self-understanding as the guarantor of the republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [Turkey’s first president, from 1923-1938.] In each instance, coup leaders viewed themselves as empowered to decide when the republic was in danger and how it needed to be defended, even if they had no legal authority to step in. Unlike those four instances, however, the July 15th coup attempt appears to be the work of a rogue clique within the military.

Q. Bloomberg News has estimated the total of those suspended, fired, removed from jobs or stripped of professional accreditation in Turkey since the failed takeover to be nearly 60,000. Is Erdogan taking advantage of the situation to remake the Turkish government?

A. There has been a lot of speculation about who orchestrated this farcical and tragic coup attempt. One thing is certain: Erdogan’s AKP [Justice and Development Party] regime has seized the opportunity to conduct a sweeping purge of political opponents within the military, judiciary, bureaucracy, and universities, the institutions that constitute the powerful levers of the Turkish state. Until the 2000s, their ideological make-up was staunchly Kemalist, adhering to the authoritarian secularism of modern Turkey’s founder. Erdogan has long understood that dismantling this control requires changing the cadres of these institutions.

Q. Is this end of the rule of law in Turkey?

A. Let’s get one thing straight: there is no point at which modern Turkey lived up to high standards of democracy, pluralism, respect for human rights, or the rule of law. The latter has been a particularly distant aspiration. Turkish police and armed forces have always enjoyed broad impunity for widespread abuses committed against leftists, Kurds, human rights campaigners and others.

There was, however, a moment in the 2000s when neither the ascendant AKP nor the Kemalist elite predominated. The impetus of EU accession enabled the AKP to liberalize the political system, afford greater cultural recognition to the country’s Kurdish minority, and bring the military under civilian control. At the time, Turkish society acquired an openness and dynamism that it subsequently lost. The brutal suppression of the Gezi Park protests in 2013 exposed the authoritarian fist inside the populist glove.

Q. How stable is the situation under Erdogan?

A. Ironically, “stability” has been the mantra of the AKP regime, in the name of which they have justified sweeping consolidation of power and draconian restrictions on pluralism. In a country traumatized by unstable coalition governments and economic fluctuations for decades, stability makes for particularly effective political rhetoric.

I expect that Erdogan will capitalize on the foiled coup to push through the constitutional transition to a powerful presidential system. This is something he has sought for the better part of a decade. Perhaps the novelty of such a shift is overstated: Erdogan already behaves as an executive president. In fact, he has declared that Turkey has a de facto presidential system regardless of the constitutional strictures in place. This is what in Latin American politics is known as an “autogolpe” or self-coup, in which a political leader unilaterally changes the regime. Friday’s coup attempt provides an excellent pretext for the AKP regime to continue a process that has been underway for some time.

Q. How does this affect Turkey’s position in NATO?

A. Turkey under the AKP has pursued a foreign policy that is often at odds with the interests of the alliance. For instance, numerous domestic and foreign sources (including a report by Columbia’s own David L. Phillips) have alleged that Turkey has provided support, including arms to extreme Sunni factions fighting in Syria at a time when Western nations are seeking to defeat ISIS. Turkey’s pursuit of Sunni predominance in the Middle East exacerbates tensions in a region where every state has a heterogeneous ethnic and religious make-up. Finally, Turkey endangered NATO interests by shooting down a Russian jet in November 2015 in response to what it alleged was a violation of its airspace. These deep differences are making the Alliance, most notably the U.S., uncomfortable.

Q. You teach in the Core Curriculum, is there wisdom that you have gleaned from your study of political theory that is applicable in this situation?

A. The 18th century political thinker and jurist Montesquieu observed that autocratic regimes only look stable, but that appearance is deceptive. Their lust for power leads them to undermine the deeply-rooted mediating institutions that hold society together. There is a sinkhole under every despotism. This is why the Erdogan regime is taking the coup attempt (ragtag as it was) so seriously.

—By Georgette Jasen