The failed military coup could become another pretext for Turkish President Erdoğan to tighten his control over power in the country, especially if it turns out the coup was orchestrated or supported by foreign actors.

Turkish soldiers secure the area as supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul's Taksim square, July 16, 2016. Photo: AP

An attempted military coup shook Turkey on the night of July 15. Gunfire and explosions rocked both the city of Istanbul and the capital of Ankara when soldiers took up positions in both cities. Scenes of tanks and soldiers on the streets of Turkey appeared on TV broadcasts around the world. But it was over almost before it started.

Crowds responded to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's call to take to the streets to support him. Attempts to take over state-owned television broadcasters were ineffective. Erdogan, who was vacationing on the Turkish coast when the coup started, flew into Istanbul before dawn on July 16 and appeared on TV among a crowd of supporters outside the airport, which the coup plotters had failed to secure.

Even though the coup failed, there are many unanswered questions. The most important one, of course, is why did the military decide to overthrow the legitimate government? Who is behind the coup? And what are the implications for Turkey?  

Erdogan’s risky dalliance with Gulen

Erdogan believes that Fethullah Gulen, a well-known Turkish Islamic cleric who has been living in the United States since 1999, of orchestrating the coup. Even though he supported Erdogan initially, Gulen’s ties with the United States were always a question mark. He had a great deal of political heft even before Erdogan came to power. Gulen owned schools and institutions in over 100 countries and also had supporters among Turkey's key political figures.

For some, Gulen’s desire to maintain close relationships with the U.S. and Erdogan at the same time was considered suspicious. Erdogan, who just a few years earlier was supporting and even defending Gülen, started seeing him as a constant rival.

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Erdogan might have never changed his approach to Gülen if they didn’t get involved in a power struggle. Gulen had a strong influence on the police force and on key positions within the judicial system. Erdoğan was not taking lightly the risk of a military coup or an act from the Turkish judicial system. No wonder he thought of directing blame at Gülen, who could have used his strong connections inside the police force and justice system to take down Erdoğan.

Long before the failed coup, Gulen was reportedly behind the corruption scandal, which involved the sons of some Turkish ministers, who were arrested afterwards. This drove the Turkish president to tighten the screws in the country by imposing greater control over the media and attempting to block YouTube and Twitter, which were spreading tapes and records proving the complicity of the sons of Turkish ministers in the corruption scandal.

Moreover, Erdogan incessantly pointed fingers at Gulen, accusing him of preparing a coup d’état. His arguments led to Gulen living in the United States and, allegedly, having ties with the U.S. security services. He also claimed that Gulen’s actions were part of an attempt to control Turkey as a “parallel” or shadow government. In addition, Erdogan tried to gloss over any potential wrongdoing by him or his team by downplaying the accusations of corruption as “false claims” by Gulen.

So, according to Erdogan, members of Gulen’s shadow government – backed by foreign players - allegedly made their way stealthily into Turkey’s institutions. People grasped these accusations, which overshadowed the corruption cases.

Erdoğan’s controversial record

Among all the countries with a large Muslim population around the world, Turkey stands out for its secularism and constitutional democracy. For example, in giving women the right to vote and supporting their social advancement, Turkey stood out from its Muslim peers as a civilized, modern and secular state.

However, when Erdogan came to power in 2002 as prime minister, the economy was only beginning to rise. By privatizing countless government-owned industrial plants, factories, institutions and banks, he strengthened the government’s financial position and played a role in the rising economy.

A country that had gone through many difficult economic depressions was now on the rise and year by year, the more voters became accustomed to higher living standards, the less they criticized Erdogan’s undemocratic initiatives.

As long as Erdoğan presided over a strong economy, he had the upper hand. As the democratically elected prime minister of Turkey, he continually sought ways to strengthen his positions. But Turkey has been a country with a long history of military coups and shutting down of political parties because of their activities against democracy and secularism. Erdogan’s political party also faced a threat of being shut down by the Constitutional Court, but they managed to overcome it.

After that period, almost in every election, Erdogan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained power, despite criticism and charges of unfairness. Step by step but diligently, opposition figures in the country’s important positions were replaced and people with ideological positions closer to Erdoğan’s were assigned to those places.

After serving as prime minister for 12 years, Erdogan became the president. In the Turkish system, the prime minister has more control than the president. But gaining a new title didn’t mean that Erdogan would not amend this rule. His major goal was to gather the powers of prime minister and president and rule the country as one solitary leader.

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Such attempts to increase his political power and control in the country stemmed from the fact that Turkey faced a significant number of foreign and domestic problems, including the Syrian war, the increasing terror threat and tensions from the Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers a terrorist organization.

In fact, the conflict with the PKK was a very thorny question. As any authoritarian leader, Erdoğan needed a new target to bring together his supporters, and the PKK became this target.

Neither the problem with the PKK nor Turkey’s involvement in Syria has been solved yet. Moreover, the economic situation in Turkey is precarious. Nevertheless, Erdogan is not backing down from his authoritarianism. Since 2014, when Erdogan became president, nearly 2,000 people have been sued for insulting him, including cartoonists, journalists and teenagers.

So, all this would seem to indicate that Erdogan has only gained from the failed coup d’état and may indeed have good reason to tighten the screws and strengthen his power. Probably he was well aware of the upcoming coup (or as many believe, maybe, he was the person who planed an unsuccessful attempt to become even more authoritarian). When he appeared on TV among a crowd of supporters outside the airport on July 16, he was doing so most likely to score political points.

Even though the coup failed, Erdogan’s future is unpredictable. It remains to be seen if this will lead to either a change in power or the tightening of the screws within the country. Given that Turkey plays a role in determining the fate of the Syrian crisis, the Kremlin should keep a close eye on how events will develop in Ankara.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.