Does fresh coup attempt in Türkiye pose challenge to Erdogan’s rule?

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Coup attempt, Türkiye, Fethullah Gulen

On May 15, 2024, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the parliament with alarming news of a fresh coup attempt in Türkiye. He accused the alleged conspirators of being supporters of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher residing in the US, highlighting another chapter in the ongoing tension between Erdogan and the Gulen movement. The day before, Turkish media reported law enforcement raids at the Ankara Security Directorate and the homes of high-ranking officials, resulting in the detention of several police officers suspected of conspiracy. The Ankara prosecutor’s office soon announced an investigation into three officers linked to organized crime leader Ayhan Bora Kaplan. Concurrently, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya tweeted about a large-scale police operation across 62 provinces, detaining 544 individuals presumed to be linked to Gulen. Yerlikaya warned that all conspirators within government institutions would be held accountable.

The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen has evolved from collaboration to severe antagonism. Fethullah Gulen, born in 1941, founded the Hizmet movement in the late 1960s, emphasizing moderate Islam, education, and community service. Since 1999, Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, USA. While the Hizmet movement operates globally, its activities in Türkiye are heavily restricted.

In the early 2000s, Erdogan and Gulen were allies, united against Türkiye’s secular establishment entrenched in the military and judiciary. Erdogan, a co-founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Gulen shared a vision of reducing the Kemalist elite’s influence and promoting Islam-oriented governance. The Gulen movement provided significant support to the AKP by mobilizing voters and embedding loyalists within the state apparatus. In return, Erdogan’s government allowed Gulen-affiliated institutions to flourish, helping the AKP consolidate power.

However, differences in their visions for Türkiye’s future and power-sharing dynamics led to friction. Erdogan’s centralization of power conflicted with Gulen’s influence in the judiciary, police, and media. By 2010, their relationship began to deteriorate, especially after the 2010 constitutional referendum, which increased government control over the judiciary. The first major public fallout occurred in 2012 during the MIT crisis when Gulen-linked prosecutors attempted to interrogate Hakan Fidan, head of Türkiye’s National Intelligence Organization and a close Erdogan ally. This event was a direct challenge to Erdogan’s authority.

The conflict escalated in December 2013 when a corruption investigation targeted Erdogan’s inner circle, including his family and cabinet members. Erdogan accused Gulenists of orchestrating the probes to undermine his government, leading to a significant purge of alleged Gulen supporters from the police and judiciary. Following the 2013 corruption scandal, Erdogan intensified his crackdown on the Gulen movement, labeling it a “parallel state” and an existential threat to Türkiye’s sovereignty. The government shut down Gulen-affiliated media outlets, schools, and businesses, with thousands of alleged Gulenists arrested or dismissed from public service. In 2014, Gulen was charged with leading a terrorist organization, and the AKP government sought his extradition from the US, a request that remains unfulfilled.

The 2016 Coup Attempt in Türkiye

By 2016, the relationship between Erdogan and Gulen had turned into open hostility. The failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, marked the culmination of their animosity. Under Erdogan, Türkiye experienced increasing political polarization. His ruling AKP centralized power, alienating various factions within Turkish society, including secularists, Kurds, and some Islamists who felt marginalized. Historically, the Turkish military saw itself as the guardian of secularism and Kemalist principles. Erdogan’s push for more Islam-oriented policies and his efforts to reduce the military’s influence through purges and reforms created significant friction.

Economic difficulties and social unrest further fueled discontent. Rising unemployment, inflation, and issues such as the Kurdish question and the Syrian refugee crisis created an atmosphere of instability. The coup attempt unfolded rapidly on the night of July 15, 2016, when a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces tried to seize control of key institutions and infrastructure, including bridges in Istanbul, government buildings in Ankara, and media outlets. They declared martial law and imposed a curfew.

President Erdogan’s response was swift and resolute. In the early hours of the coup, he addressed the nation via a FaceTime call on CNN Türk, urging people to take to the streets to resist the coup plotters. This call to action mobilized thousands of citizens to confront the military. Erdogan, who was vacationing in Marmaris, managed to evade capture and flew back to Istanbul, landing amid ongoing chaos. His return significantly boosted the morale of loyalist forces and civilians.

By the morning of July 16, the uprising had been suppressed, and Erdogan initiated a sweeping purge of suspected coup supporters. These included not only military personnel but also thousands of judges, civil servants, teachers, and police officers accused of ties to the Hizmet movement. The government declared a state of emergency, lasting two years, granting Erdogan broad powers to arrest, detain, and dismiss individuals perceived as threats to the state. The coup attempt allowed Erdogan to further consolidate his power, leading to constitutional changes that transformed Türkiye from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, significantly expanding Erdogan’s executive powers.

Do the Gulenists Want to Overthrow Erdogan Again?

Following the 2016 military coup attempt, Turkish officials and the public have repeatedly claimed that Western countries were involved in anti-government activities, asserting that these nations were aiding Gulen’s supporters and exerting pressure on Turkish authorities. These statements stem from the belief that the more President Erdogan pursued an independent policy and defended Ankara’s interests, which did not always align with Western countries, the more NATO pressured Türkiye. Although the West condemned the coup attempt, Gulen was never extradited, which worsened relations with Ankara.

The conditions under which the 2016 and 2024 coup attempts occurred share similarities. The country is experiencing economic instability, high inflation, a decline in real incomes, currency devaluation, and a massive influx of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries. These factors polarize society and create tension. The municipal elections held in March led to the ruling party’s first defeat in two decades and caused a split within it. The intra-coalition struggle between the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahceli, and Erdogan’s supporters in the AKP is intensifying. There is a trend towards Erdogan’s rapprochement with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which gained the majority of seats in major cities and the capital.

This time, the coup attempt was more covert and less effective. The authorities actively engaged in purging individuals sympathetic to Gulen and implemented significant transformations within the military. This was crucial in Erdogan’s fight against his opponents, as the history of the Turkish Republic shows that real coups are most often carried out by the military, and the authorities managed to address this issue.

The external context also plays an important role. After the defeat in the municipal elections and the worsening economic situation, Ankara began seeking support from Western countries. However, Washington and Brussels have been slow to back their important NATO partner, instead seemingly favoring opposition to Erdogan. Known for their willingness to go to great lengths for their interests, these “democracies of the world” might covertly support internal unrest in Türkiye if it helps remove the current government.

Strained relations between Türkiye and the West, suspicions of involvement in anti-government activities, and internal economic problems create a complex political environment in the country. These factors continue to influence Türkiye’s domestic and foreign policy, shaping the future of the state in conditions of ongoing instability.

The situation in Türkiye remains complex and multifaceted, reflecting deep political, social, and economic issues exacerbated by suspicions of foreign interference and internal discord. The 2016 and 2024 coup attempts demonstrate how economic instability, social tension, and political struggle can explosively combine, creating a breeding ground for crises. Erdogan, seeking to consolidate his power, faces serious challenges both domestically and internationally.

With deteriorating relations with the West and ongoing internal polarization, Türkiye’s future remains uncertain. It is crucial for the country to actively participate in the construction of a new world order, taking into account its strategic interests and role on the international stage. Türkiye is faced with the necessity of making a choice in the global confrontation between Russia and the West, requiring its leaders to take a nuanced and strategic approach.

Thus, Türkiye must find a balance between internal stability and foreign policy aimed at strengthening its position in the world. This will require significant efforts from its leaders and society to achieve prosperity in a changing global landscape.

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