Study the electoral map from the last Turkish election (as all the cool kids have) and you’ll notice it resembles a set of bookends. The western extremes of the country, European Turkey and the districts on the Aegean Sea, were won by the center-left Republican People’s Party. The east, meanwhile, is a stronghold for the People’s Democratic Party, a Kurdish nationalist vehicle.
The rest of Turkey—its vast Anatolian heartland—is mostly supportive of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Elected prime minister in 2002 and then president in 2014, Erdogan initially showed promise as a reformer, taming inflation and presiding over an economic boom that gave the middle class an unprecedented stake in their country. He even pledged renewed diplomacy with the restive Kurds, a knotty problem that’s long frustrated Turkish politics.
But as Erdogan aged in office, he seemed to grow both paranoid and incendiary. Rather than offer a hand to the Kurds, he repeatedly poked them in the eyes. Rather than take the fight to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, he attempted to leverage them against his hated Syrian neighbor Bashar al-Assad. Perceived enemies of his presidency were rounded up, sentenced to prison, and forced into exile. Chillingly, Erdogan also began reversing Turkey’s secular governing traditions, established when Ataturk abolished the Ottoman caliphate back in 1923, in favor of something more Islamic.
So dark times in Turkey—no far-flung hinterland, it’s on Europe’s eastern frontier and a key buffer between the West and the Syrian crisis. It’s hard to overstate just how tense Turkey under Erdogan has become, with extreme political polarization, the worst Kurdish violence in 30 years, attacks by the Islamic State, and tensions with Russia. This was scenery leading into last weekend’s short-lived coup, perpetrated by a small and apparently moronic faction of the military. Rather than actually trying to actually capture Erdogan, they bombed the parliament building, let the president broadcast a Facetime message to his supporters, and ended up getting themselves captured within 24 hours.
The children in search of Pokemon in the park near my apartment building could have mounted a more effective putsch. The entire effort was so bush-league that some observers later questioned whether it was a farce that had been arranged by Erdogan so he could subsequently consolidate his own power. Whatever the case, a friend writing from the pro-Erdogan city of Gazientep reports on the ominous night after:
Erdogan had called on his supporters to take to the streets, and by this time, 7:30 or so, the streets were absolutely filled with cars filled with young men chanting Allahu Akbar as they drove past. We crossed the street to the park, ordered tea, and watched the scene go by. Buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, all filled the streets – chanting, honking, waving flags. …I took a taxi, and while waiting for the driver to come, the scene continued – Allahu akbar, allahu akbar. …Our Turkish friend tonight was in despair that the two choices are, in her mind, Islamic extremism or military coup – neither one representing actual democracy as they purport to be.
Suddenly, Erdogan seems the quintessential Islamist strongman. He has his mobs chanting religious slogans in the streets; he has his scapegoat in the form of “Gulenists,” followers of his nemesis Fethullah Gülen who’s been exiled to Pennsylvania; he has his mandate to purge perceived enemies from government, which already includes thousands of police officers, soldiers, and judges; and he has his excuse to widen the power of the presidency, something he’s been demanding for years. Never one to hide his intentions, Erdogan himself called the coup a “gift from God” that will let him “cleanse our army.” Turkey’s democratic government might have been preserved, but these are dark days for Turkish liberty, as what was once a secular model for the Muslim world hurtles deeper into the maw of Islamism and dictatorship.
It may be that even the awful choice between Islamic extremism and military coup never really existed in Turkey. The putsch was a paper tiger, and right now, Erdogan is firmly in control. As Yvo Fitzherbert writes at the Spectator, “Erdogan has unleashed the Islamist mobs, who know that this is their moment.”