The narrative that the coup attempt in Turkey is the surge of an epic struggle between secularism and islamism is misleading. An Indian analogy will help reset focus.
Imagine, after the BJP having won two more successive mandates, a rift occurs circa 2026 between the sangh parivar and the BJP due to personality clashes and policy differences, and the head of government decides that he could dispense with crutches. A power struggle ensues, since he will be taking on shadowy, disciplined and ideologically motivated forces who are well-ensconced within state organs by then.
In the Turkish context, perhaps, President Recep Erdogan also suspects that his rival Fetullah Gulen, the islamist ideologue living in exile in the US, enjoys American backing. Given Washington’s growing disenchantment with Turkish policies, Erdogan suspects US collusion with Gulen, seeking 'regime change’ in Ankara. All this gives a geopolitical dimension to the recent developments. Erdogan’s forceful demand for Gulen’s extradition and the accusation that US intelligence had a hand in the coup attempt have put strains on Turkish-American relations. But then, Turkey is a pivotal state in the western alliance system, contributing the second biggest contingent in NATO. However, Turkish crisis is, at its core, a power struggle within the islamist camp. Ironically, Erdogan has succeeded in crushing the coup by invoking ‘people’s power’. The secularists who otherwise regard political Islam with distaste and are critical of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule instinctively joined him to defeat the coup attempt.
The putsch also has been a pre-emptive move insofar as the ‘Gulenists’ suspected that Erdogan had prepared a ‘hit list’ to purge them from positions of authority and was only biding his time. The biannual meeting of the High Military Council under Erdogan’s chairmanship was due to take place on August 1 to decide on the retirement and transfers of the top brass.
Nothing will stop Erdogan now from implementing the massive purge. He is today supremely confident that he does not need the Gulenist cadres to win elections. His popularity is sky-high. Turks adore strong, charismatic leaders. Erdogan is a brilliant demagogue and a ruthless practitioner of power and can be trusted to exploit the failed coup to galvanise his bid to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system, arguing that it is in the interests of national security and stability to have an executive presidency.
The Turkish military used to be westernised and secular, but this began changing once Erdogan scrapped Kemalist restrictions on the display of religiosity by observant Muslims. The military today is led by people whom Erdogan carefully selected during his great purge of Kemalists in the officer corps (Gulenists had supported him, ironically). Thus, the top brass refused to join the coup.
The abortive coup and the purge that is unfolding would create turbulence and volatility in Turkish politics until a ‘new normal’ is reached. However, Erdogan’s political mandate is beyond doubt. Turks experienced a high level of economic prosperity under his leadership, and the political opposition is fragmented and remains unappealing. Erdogan is unabashedly pro-business, and his mastery of the art of political patronage is legendary. The nexus between Turkey’s islamists and the ‘bazaar’ should not be overlooked, either. To be sure, Erdogan’s support base is formidable.
The writer was ambassador to Turkey.