Erdogan’s Unsung Victory

Turkey's strongman has broken the power of the military. Could that ensure the long-term victory of democracy?

Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

On May 28, 1960, U.S. Ambassador Fletcher Warren sat down with the general who, early the previous morning, had taken control of Turkey by toppling the government of Adnan Menderes, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister. Warren, who witnessed many coups during his stint as a diplomat in Latin America, told Turkey’s new leader that this was "by far the most precise, most efficient, and most rapid coup" he had ever seen. Yet following this praise he went on to warn that after the military had seized power once, it would find it increasingly difficult to avoid doing so in the future when the political process faltered. Warren proved prescient in his warning.

On Aug. 10, 2014, a majority of Turkish voters elected Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their new president despite the corruption and undemocratic behavior that increasingly marked his time as prime minister. Speaking after his victory that night, Erdogan declared that the parenthesis opened by Turkey’s 1960 coup had now been closed. As Ambassador Warren predicted, after 1960 coups followed regularly in 1971, 1980, and 1997. Now it appears that the era of Turkish history marked by repeated military intervention has indeed ended — making way for an era of civilian authoritarianism under Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). In fact, the story of Erdogan’s move toward autocracy begins with Adnan Menderes and the coup that toppled him from power. Menderes’s execution at the hands of the Turkish military helps explain why Erdogan and his followers have felt comfortable using authoritarian measures to avoid yet another military coup.

During the 1950s, Menderes transformed from democratic hero to aspiring tyrant in a way that offers a troubling parallel to Erdogan. Like Erdogan, he had begun his career as a courageous young politician, challenging an established autocracy in the name of his people’s material needs and democratic rights. He won admiration for loosening the government’s strict, often anti-Islamic interpretation of secularism while liberalizing the economy to bring increased prosperity to the country’s rural population. But he never felt secure in his power. The fear that it could be taken away spurred his descent into paranoia and authoritarianism.

Within five years of being elected, when his party still commanded solid majorities at the polls, Menderes began shutting down newspapers and jailing opposition journalists. The New York Times, in language that would sound familiar today, repeatedly declared itself "disturb[ed] to read about an increasing curtailment of the freedom of the Turkish press." By 1960, the regime had put the leadership of the country’s opposition party on trial for treason. The U.S. government, though privately concerned about Menderes’s autocratic behavior, continued to back the man who brought Turkey into NATO while overseeing 10 years of free-market reform.

After taking power in 1960, Turkey’s new military leadership tried and hanged Prime Minister Menderes before handing control back to a newly formed civilian government. The military feared that if they spared his life after the coup, he would simply return to power in the next election and exact his revenge. But even after Menderes was dead, the Turkish people never voted the way the military wanted. The next several decades saw several more coups, against leftists, Islamists, and politicians of all stripes who were considered unfit to rule. The brutality and humiliation of military rule, the exaggerated version of secular authoritarian nationalism it promoted, and the dirty, decades-long guerrilla war with Kurdish separatists that accompanied it have traumatized Turkey. The experience has understandably led many, most notably President Erdogan, to romanticize Menderes as a democratic martyr and his decade in power as a lost opportunity for Turkish democracy.

Like Menderes, Erdogan had the ability to make Turkey a real democracy. In both his rhetoric and actions after coming into office, Erdogan showed real courage in pursuit of liberal reforms. And during his first years in office, Erdogan also faced an alleged coup. The military had supposedly turned against Erdogan due in part to his support of a U.N. plan to reunite Cyprus, a move that would make EU membership a real possibility for Turkey, but would also end the military’s often corrupt political and economic influence on the island. Erdogan’s government responded with the Ergenekon trials, a sprawling criminal case that broke the military’s hold on politics, but also used false evidence to sweep up many people whose only crime was criticizing the government. Every round of Ergenekon arrests seemed to include at least a few people who were quite possibly guilty of planning a coup, along with the many others who were almost certainly innocent. Now, in large part because of these trials, it appears Erdogan’s story will have a different ending from that of Menderes. Post-Ergenekon, the military is not a force that can act with the impunity it did before.

Like Menderes, Richard Nixon, or many other leaders from different decades and continents, Erdogan seems genuinely motivated by the belief that he is being unfairly targeted by his enemies. In 2008, the AKP government imposed over a billion dollars in fines against a leading newspaper conglomerate whose papers’ political coverage Erdogan found unsatisfactory. Speaking in Washington, one AKP parliamentarian denied outright accusations that the fine was politically motivated. But if it had been, he continued, that was because someone needed to punish the media for trying to influence politics instead of objectively reporting the news. Erdogan has indeed been unfairly targeted in the past — so it’s hard for him and his supporters to accept criticism as a normal, even necessary, facet of democracy. Especially given that some of his country’s previous experiences with democracy have ended on the gallows.

The long shadow cast by Turkey’s military coups has led Erdogan and many of his supporters to see authoritarian means as justifiable, even crucial, for achieving democracy. It is telling when critics accuse the AKP of trying to institute a one-party state, AKP politicians respond not by denying the charges but by pointing to even more authoritarian periods from the country’s early history. Certainly Turkey would be much worse off today if Erdogan had left the military in power, able to topple future governments as it had Menderes’s. It is to the AKP’s lasting credit that no one in the country has any reason to expect another real coup. Even a number of Erdogan’s opponents give him credit for this. Now, Erdogan is mending relations with the institution he once maligned and trying to make the military’s top brass among his supporters.

Erdogan’s authoritarian vigilance has kept Turkey out of the fire and securely in the frying pan. This time around, Turkey will endure a civilian, religiously oriented form of authoritarianism as opposed to a secular military one. Turkish citizens have rightfully compared their country’s partial democratization with the post-war success of Western European countries like Germany, and been justifiably angry at its relative failure. But compared to many of the alternatives, Turkey’s relative success has spared the country from a number of much worse fates. The execution of one prime minister and two of his colleagues, however brutal, pales in comparison to the grim tally of political murders in Syria or Iraq. And it’s certainly possible that one of the reasons Turkey did not have an Islamic revolution like Iran’s is that in 1950, Turkey, unlike Iran, tempered secular modernization with democracy. In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, an imperfect democratic process also helped limit the appeal of Kurdish separatism, which took on its most violent form in response to the repression that followed Turkey’s 1980 coup. Today, even with the dangerous setbacks brought on by the government’s handling of events in the Syrian city of Kobani, there is still some hope that a political solution to the country’s Kurdish problem could be Erdogan’s redeeming legacy.

This certainly isn’t grounds for complacency, or for giving up on the goal of full democracy — but it does challenge the pessimism of those who see Erdogan as proof that Turkey’s two-century democratization process has ended in definitive and permanent failure.

To end on a more optimistic cliché, if Turkey’s path to full democracy has not been smooth sailing, it can at least be seen as tacking forward into a strong wind. Each change of direction brings it further from its goal in some regards, but ultimately closer in others. It is telling that in the wake of Erdogan’s election many commentators have already suggested he may face unexpected limits as president, particularly if the AKP fails to gain a two-thirds majority in the next election. Others have begun looking forward to a more liberal post-Erdogan era, confident that for all of Erdogan’s vote rigging and manhandling of the press, he could not simply stay in office when his term is up. Meanwhile, Turkey’s main opposition party, which once seemed nostalgic for the days of military-enforced secularism, continues to move, much too slowly, and only moderately surely, toward a more liberal and inclusive platform.

When Turkey’s future is presented as if the alternatives to full democracy resemble Putin’s Russia, or even Khomeini’s Iran, all might seem lost. But set against the current feeling of existential despair, or even the memory of past military rule, for Turkey to maintain the endurable dysfunction of, say, Berlusconi’s Italy now seems like a surprisingly satisfactory and achievable outcome. At the very least, it preserves the possibility of tacking back toward liberal democracy.

Nicholas Danforth has been a Senior Analyst in the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Program since January 2016.

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