Abraham Thicke, Washington Hatti USOne of the few things that everyone agrees on about the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey is that its failure was largely due to the actions of the Turkish public, who poured onto the streets in response to a call by the President Recap Tayyip Erdoğan.
Many never returned home. Some were shot, some were crushed by tanks and others strafed or bombed by fighter jets during a night of violence that left more than 250 dead and approximately 1500 wounded.
In the jittery days that followed thousands took to the streets to guard against the possibility of another coup attempt, in what the government dubbed ‘democracy watches,’ feeding a narrative than being crafted which presented the civilian intervention as a successful defense of democracy.
To what extent is this true?
First of all, it is worth noting that people took to the streets out of a variety of different motives. Many were doubtless driven by their devotion to President Erdoğan, some by a desire to defend democracy and still others by nothing more than a sense of adventure. The Turkish regime’s one size fits all description of the civilian intervention is therefore inadequate in capturing the range of motives that impelled people onto the streets. For many who died that night, the abstract notion of democracy can never have entered their minds.
Second, whilst it is self-evident that coups and coup plotters have no place in any democracy, it is equally obvious that not all coups aim to topple democratic governments. History is littered with examples of coups in authoritarian and totalitarian states. In these cases, those resisting the coup can scarcely be labelled as defending democracy. Sometimes there are no good guys.
So, in the case of the Turkey’s recent coup attempt, the question of whether or not the civilians who took to the streets can be considered as defenders of democracy depends, rather trivially, on the motivations of the individuals concerned and, more significantly, on the question of whether or not the contemporaries Turkish political system can be considered democratic.
At the time of the attempted coup, The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit, using a 4 category classification system (full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime, authoritarian regime) rated Turkey as a hybrid regime. This assessment agrees closely with that of many other institutions monitoring democracy worldwide.
So, contrary to the official Turkish narrative, it would be more accurate, if not such good propaganda, to describe the civilian intervention on the night of 15th -16th July not as an action carried out to defend democracy, but as an action carried out to defend a hybrid regime. Nor were those out on the streets defending a regime inching, however painfully, towards increased democracy. The trend prior to 2016 was in the reverse direction, towards authoritarianism.
Since the coup attempt, Turkish regime officials have constantly complained that Western democracies were not sufficiently swift in condemning the coup and offering their support. I wonder why?
Events subsequent to the coup attempt entirely bear out the above assessment. Since then Turkey has witnessed a precipitous decline in its already dubious democratic status. A draconian state of emergency instituted in the immediate aftermath of the coup attempt has been in place ever since. It has been used as a pretext for massive purges, targeting not just those who participated in the coup but anyone and anything the regime perceives as a threat, including entirely legitimate political opponents. Thousands languish in jail on the flimsiest of evidence, with no immediate prospects of trial in a judicial system that, these days, serves mostly to rubber stamp decisions passed down from on high. More than a hundred thousand public sector workers have lost their jobs and effectively been excluded from society. Hundreds of NGO’s have been abruptly shut down. To claim this all somehow serves democracy is a farce of the highest order.
In March this year, Turks voted, by a narrow majority, to approve constitutional amendments that handed Erdoğan one-man rule in a proposed system free of from the checks and balances essential to any democracy. Those campaigning against the changes were routinely intimidated, denounced as terrorists and denied any platform to make their case in the government controlled media. Election monitors predictably described the environment in which the vote took place as unfair. On the night of the vote the YSK (The Supreme Election Council) amended the election rules to allow ballots lacking validating stamps to be counted, a blatant contravention of electoral regulations, widely perceived as enabling the regime to rig the result.
Did any of the civilians who ventured outside on the night of 15th July 2016 have this kind of outcome in mind? Any who did can be well pleased with the results. But it would be an affront to reason to describe them as defending democracy.
None of that, of course, will stop Erdoğan and his supporters from portraying the defeat of the coup as a great victory for democracy in the lavish celebrations arranged to mark its first anniversary. Certainly the coup, had it succeeded, would have placed Turkey under the control of authoritarian rulers. But its failure simply enabled another group of authoritarians to extinguish the last remnants of Turkish democracy.
Anyone who went out that night and died with the genuine intention of defending democracy would be utterly dismayed by subsequent events.
Democracy my arse!