At the time of writing of this article, the attempted coup against Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apparently failed, and is in the process of being methodically reduced.
Erdogan has returned to Istanbul, and addressed his fired-up followers, whose brave defiance in the street in facing the armoured might of military units was instrumental in the probable defeat of the coup.
Thousands of military officers and other ranks have already been arrested or detained. Amidst all the chaos, one thing is clear: Erdogan, already a leader hoarding more power than any since Kemal Ataturk, will become a giant among pygmies in the Turkish political landscape.
Many of his detractors used to mock Erdogan as a Neo-Ottoman Sultan because of his power grab, grand ambitions, and huge but fragile ego.
But that moniker may soon become too close to truth to have any more sarcasm value. That will not be a welcome development for those who want Turkey to be a liberal democracy.
Erdogan is a fascinating character study. He came from a humble background, he was raised in a religiously conservative family, and he did not have the stellar education that is the gateway to the ranks of the elite in Turkey.
Yet, when he was the elected mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s epicentre of secular-elite society, he managed to govern pragmatically and efficiently.
Even his ardent fans wouldn’t characterise him as a leader of high intellectual or economic sophistication, but he has been at the helm of Turkey since 2003, and during these 13 years, very few the OECD countries have been able to match Turkey’s steady economic growth.
Erdogan’s main political accomplishment has been building a solid base of support among the socially-conservative middle and working class people in the Asian part of Turkey.
That large segment of people had been brutally suppressed politically and exploited economically by previous military regimes for decades. Over the years, Erdogan’s regime has not only given them political voice, but also raised their economic prospects considerably. They are not going to abandon their champion that easily.
Erdogan has been democratically elected several times with a handsome majority, but he has consistently shown little regard for liberal principles. A failed coup is a victory of democracy over elitism, but if the principles of liberty keep getting short-shifted in Turkey, democracy itself will be under threat soon
While Erdogan’s domestic economic stewardship is nearly irreproachable, his foreign policy in the near and far abroad has been quite disastrous. A few years earlier, when Arab countries were buffeted with gusts of Arab Spring, and people were looking towards Turkey for regional leadership, it looked for a while that Erdogan’s dream of re-establishing some kind of Ottoman sphere of influence among the countries that belonged to the empire is more substantive than a pipe dream.
But Erdogan backed all the wrong horses in the Mad Max-type race that engulfed the Middle East in the last few years. Erdogan pushed for ouster of Gaddafi in Libya, he supported the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt, backed the Morsi government, and refused to recognise Sisi’s government when it ousted Morsi.
Most disastrously, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates banded together to support all the sundry rebel forces that were trying to depose the Assad government in Syria. The ensuing devastations of Syrian Civil War have made the long Lebanon Civil War of 1980s seem a jaunt in the park.
Not the mention that, out of the witch’s cauldron of Syrian war, there emerged the demonic entity IS. Many experts of international affairs fault Erdogan’s ambivalent policy towards IS as one of the reasons why the group is so entrenched in Syria and Iraq and proved so hard to roll back. It is not just the misadventures of foreign policy but Erdogan’s abrasive interactions with other leaders of the world left Turkey often diplomatically friendless and isolated.
There is a clear division in the reactions to the attempted coup in the world society. There is little doubt that, among the secular-liberal section of the political spectrum, most people would have expressed sadness if the coup was successful and Erdogan was ousted. Erdogan has been attracting distrust and antagonism from liberals for a long time.
His throwback social conservatism, his staunch religious reactionaryism, his frequent dalliance in bizarre theorising, all these have earned him little favour with liberals. But the most damaging things are Erdogan’s unrelenting push for centralised power grab, and his vicious crusade against press freedom.
Among all countries of the world, Turkey arrested and jailed the highest number of journalists for two consecutive years in 2012 and 2013. In 2015, Turkey was still among the top countries that jailed journalists for the slightest pretexts.
Such behaviour may be expected of one-party states like China or theocracies like Iran, and Saudi Arabia, but not from a supposed developed democracy and a potential EU member.
Is it any wonder why most international media houses and broadcasters, organisations that employ journalists, didn’t feign to be too worried about the political fate of Erdogan while the coup was going on?
For most people in the Islamic world, Erdogan is a great hero who stood up to big powers like Russia, gave an earful to Israel and supported different Muslim causes without qualification. Understandably, they bitterly condemned the coup attempt from the beginning and is now professing great joy at its failure. They are also condemning secular-liberals for not standing up for a democratically elected leader fight against military-backed elitism.
Democracy and liberal-democracy are not the same thing. A country can have democratically-elected regimes but be highly illiberal. Voting by a majority does not guarantee rule of law, freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, minority rights, separation of church and state, etc -- conditions that liberals hold dear.
These traditions grew out of Enlightenment movement which was not overlapping with democracy in many countries. Many countries in early modernity were not democracies but were firmly at the forefront of liberalism. Many elected majorities brutally suppressed liberties among the people, sometime with the consent of the people.
That’s why liberal principles have to be zealously guarded in a liberal democracy, especially against aggressive powers of a majoritarian power.
Erdogan has been democratically elected several times with a handsome majority, but he has consistently shown little regard for liberal principles. A failed coup is a victory of democracy over elitism, but if the principles of liberty keep getting short-shifted in Turkey, democracy itself will be under threat soon.
It may be too much to ask, but a victorious and empowered Erdogan should embark on a path of humility and self-restraint rather than triumphal self-aggrandisement, for the sake of the Turkish Republic.