An ill wind blows nobody any good

It seems the likeliest outcome of the failed military coup in Turkey is further erosion of the democratic process

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The failed military coup against Erdogan’s government in Turkey is like the proverbial ill wind that blows nobody any good. Either way, it seems the likeliest outcome is further erosion of the democratic process.

Whatever problems ail Turkey’s democracy today – and it seems there are several – a coup is never a good idea, as it mostly ends up with blood on soldiers’ hands. An example would be the 1980 coup in Turkey which saw the army arrest hundreds of thousands of people; dozens of them were executed, while many others were tortured or simply disappeared.

Another recent model which does not bode well is the Egyptian situation, where general unrest is brewing again as anger towards General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s policies is growing following the military’s coup in 2013. 

Without delving into whether the coup was staged by Erdogan or not – a suspicion that has to be given due weight, given that similar tactics have been used before – the failed coup will undoubtedly strengthen the Turkish strongman’s hand with the President expected to introduce laws to widen his powers.

Moreover, following the coup we have seen mob rule in the streets of Turkey, with Erdogan’s supporters beating up and murdering soldiers and supporters of the uprising. In a move more reminiscent of successful coups, Erdogan has purged the judiciary and security forces and other vital state institutions. 

Even if the arrests were justified at law (which is hugely debatable), we are left with the unsavoury prospect of a democratically elected government which is systematically disposing of its democratic opponents, and – equally worryingly – weakening the democratic institutions of the country, to strengthen the central government at the expense of systems of checks and balances.

As with all domestic political issues, the Turkish situation is complex and needs more than just ‘simple’ solutions. Since taking power, first as prime minister in 2003 and then as President in 2014, Erdogan has been hailed by his supporters for his economic policies which have seen Turkey register impressive growth rates.

But to his detractors he is an autocratic leader, intolerant of dissent, who harshly silences anyone who opposes him.

Certainly, Erdogan is a political force to be reckoned with. Not since the days of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, has a figure dominated Turkish politics for so long. In this sense, the failed coup gives him the legitimacy he wants to pursue his goals: namely create an executive presidency which will give him back some of the powers he relinquished when his tenure as prime minister ended in 2014.

Erdogan has been getting stronger also thanks to the European Union, which has backed him despite Turkey’s poor human rights record, especially in light of the eternal Kurdish saga, Syrian refugees and Turkey being the among the countries with the highest number of journalists behind bars.

Erdogan’s targeting of opposition parties has shattered any illusions that Turkey is a western-style democracy, and the EU should be tactful in its dealings with Erdogan, who has aspirations to recreate a sultanate in the region. 

To date, however, the EU’s approach to Turkey has not taken heed of these realities. The deal on refugees was reminiscent of the one reached with Gaddafi over migration in 2010.  

The deal signed with the EU on migration days before the last general election in November played a vital part in helping Erdogan secure a majority, following an electoral setback in the inconclusive elections held in June.  

Turkey must be held accountable for its human rights issues, and also for any reprisals in the wake of the coup. No deals on refugees or EU membership negotiations should take place, unless Turkey becomes a full signatory of the Geneva convention and other human rights conventions. 

Moreover, EU rules, known as the Copenhagen criteria, demand all applicant states to adhere to a system of democratic governance and uphold basic principles, such as the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, and protection of minorities.

But in Erdogan’s Turkey, these are being eroded as the latest legislation pushed through the Turkish parliament, dominated by his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), will allow criminal prosecutions of anti-government MPs.

The main target is the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP), which Erdogan accuses of complicity in terrorism.

Democratic elections must however be respected. Erdogan won the last round of elections, and has a mandate to rule Turkey according to the democratic conventions we all accept today. 

But democracy does not start and end on election day. There are underpinning principles that go beyond the political legitimacy of the current government; democracy implies the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and all the other basic human rights enshrined in the UN convention. 

For democracy to flourish, all must be upheld and guaranteed. Otherwise, democracy would be reduced to the very thing it was designed to prevent: tyranny, albeit a tyranny that enjoys the approval of a majority every five or so years.

Nor is it in the EU’s interest that another dictatorship emerges on its doorstep, in an already explosive region. One must therefore tread cautiously in the aftermath.