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Between 'Sultanism' and Liberal Democracy: The Peculiarities of a Failed Coup in Turkey

[President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Image via The (Russian) Presidential Press and Information Office] [President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Image via The (Russian) Presidential Press and Information Office]

The dominant mainstream Western media narrative regarding the failed military coup in Turkey revolves around the theme of a democratically-elected leader going mad and suddenly becoming an autocrat. It reminds one of the good old themes of “sultanism” or “oriental despotism.” Of course, the massive purges that are currently taking place give credit to that narrative. This narrative seems to be very popular even among some Western leftist publications and analysts. However, one needs a more nuanced viewpoint in order to assess the limits, threats, and also the potentials of the current situation. Here are some notes that may at least help a little.

It is true that Erdoğan will most probably seek to turn the failed coup into a political opportunity for himself, and use it as a pretext to initiate yet another wave of repression. Such a process can be described as a self-coup. A self-coup is a form of putsch in which a leader or a political party, despite having come to power through legal ways, dissolves or renders powerless the national assembly and political parties, and assumes extraordinary powers.

Thus, it is very reasonable to predict that the state of emergency (instituted on 20 July) will not be a temporary measure against the failed coup. Rather, it will be used to give a legal pretext to the process of creating a majoritarian, autocratic “dominant party” system. However, that does not mean that the military coup and Erdoğan’s post-response represented two equally bad options (e.g., two “fascisms,” as some have put it). In fact, the possible victory of the military coup would have had disastrous consequences for all, and its defeat is good news.

That the military coup was aborted through a popular mobilization is also an important factor that should be addressed. Portraying this mobilization as something like a “fascist” (or “Islamofascist”) mass movement, a new version of the march on Rome, is a gross mistake—one that is unfortunately popular among some Turkish and Western leftists. Instead, the mobilization is part of a rather contradictory situation where Erdoğan is using a popular mobilization against a military coup in a Bonapartist-plebiscitarian manner. This is a mass mobilization that is controlled and organized by the government, but also has spontaneous and plebian characteristics.

To put it simply: the problem is not that people sought to stop the tanks on the night of 15 July 2016. These popular mobilizations created a totally new situation that, unfortunately, the Left did not have the means to actively engage with. The problem is that these demonstrations manifested under (mainly) the wrong slogans and symbols, and especially under the wrong leadership. Thus, any simplistic analysis that portrays this mass mobilization as the reaction of a fascist mob, or as an ideal democratic movement, will certainly lead to a miscalculation regarding the current political situation. 

One must also be attentive to the peculiar character of the purges that are taking place in Turkey. The representation of Erdoğan as an omnipotent “sultan” is misleading. Of course the state of emergency gives Erdoğan the power and legal means to “cleanse” the state. At the moment, the government is targeting those who are suspected of being linked with the Gülen movement, which is thought to have been the main perpetrator of the attempted coup.

In its first ten years of rule, the AKP in fact coalesced with the Gülen movement in. At the time the relationship was certainly mutually beneficial. Erdoğan gave them popular legitimacy and government backing, while the Gülenists in the judiciary, bureaucracy, police, and army provided crucial support to AKP’s quarrels with the Kemalists during the early 2000s.

The last three years featured the crumbling of this tacit coalition. Now it is time for Erdogan to liquidate this movement, which he thinks (rather correctly) betrayed and stabbed him in the back. However, this is not an easy task. This purge means a big upheaval and confusion within the state apparatuses (and even within the ruling party itself). For this reason, Erdoğan needs the backing of the major opposition parties. Thus, in the weeks after the failed coup, he is trying to gain the consent of the main opposition by creating an atmosphere of “tolerance” and national union. Another reason for this conciliatory attitude is Erdoğan’s belief that Western powers, especially the United States, are behind the coup attempt. So he feels isolated and, in a sense, threatened by the West.

Of course this “union sacrée” does not include the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish party which is ostracized as an “anti-national” force. However, it is not easy at the moment to predict the possible trajectory of the Kurdish issue. The relative weakness of Erdoğan and the need to form alliances on both national and international levels could force him into a certain rapprochement with the Kurdish movement and to restart peace negotiations. Alternatively, might seek to continue and even deepen the current war policies. Although the second option certainly seems more plausible at the moment, it is too early to jump to conclusions on that matter.    

Thus, what we have is a contradictory situation in the sense that, while Erdoğan’s popular charisma is on the rise, he is politically weak and insecure due to the fragmentation in the state apparatuses and his isolation in the international arena. Of course, the state of emergency gives the ruling party and Erdoğan the means to restructure the state and create all the mechanisms that will allow them to get rid of all forms of political dissent. It is easy to assume that once the purge of Gülenists is over and once Erdoğan feels more secure, the target will be once again the usual suspects (i.e., the Left, the labor and social opposition, and especially the Kurdish movement).

However, simplifying that situation in a liberal narrative of sultanism will certainly not help the situation of the democratic and Left opposition in Turkey. A one-way analysis that leads either to autocracy and forms of oriental despotism or to Western-type liberal democracy is misleading. As previously mentioned, there is a contradictory situation where you have a popular mobilization against a military coup, which is utilized by Erdoğan and the AKP as a plebiscite on the street to allow and legitimize the cleansing and restructuring of the state. It is a mass movement that is at the same time controlled and organized by the AKP, but also has popular, spontaneous and bottom-up characteristics.

Another contradictory element is the power and status of Erdoğan himself. In Turkey now, we have a leader so powerful that he is titled as “commander in chief” and pretends to be the nation’s savior, who at the same time is also so weak that he is obliged to appease the main opposition. In such a delicate situation, we should be aware that repeating simplistic liberal, Western arguments will play into Erdoğan’s hands since it will broaden his populist appeal.

We should not forget that Erdoğan has always managed to translate and reduce any political polarization to a Kulturkampf, i.e., to the cultural conflict between the so called secular and Islamic ways of life which was skilfully manipulated for years by the conservative populism of the ruling party to render invisible class-based and social antagonisms. This situation confines the Left to an essentialist, culturalist struggle with an ambiguous class nature.

The Gezi uprising in 2003, originating from a struggle against the commercialization of a common space (if not directly a “class-based movement,” nevertheless a “class struggle”), breached for a moment the imaginary conflict between the two alleged cultural camps—or “neighborhoods” as they are called in the contemporary Turkish politic idiom. As such, it pointed to something beyond the two camps. What caused the government, and more specifically Erdoğan, to panic in the first days of the uprising was their inability to portray the protest as a continuation of the previous republican mobilizations organized by Kemalist secularists.

That is precisely why, during the summer of 2013, Erdoğan resorted to accusing protesters of attacking and insulting women wearing headscarves, or getting drunk inside mosques. He tried to stop the uprising from contaminating the pious “nation” (millet), which he claimed to be the true representative of. In the words of conservative nationalist novelist Peyami Safa (1899-1961), he wanted to prevent it from spreading “from Harbiye to Fatih.” In his influential 1931 novel Fatih Harbiye, Safa tells a story set in Istanbul, around the antagonism between the Western lifestyle—symbolized in the trendy Harbiye neighbourhood—and the “traditional” Islamic ways—epitomized in the old district of Fatih. Pitting Westernized and “traditional” neighbourhoods of Istanbul against each other has always been a discursive strategy of Turkish conservatism—both in its nationalistic and Islamic versions. Erdoğan capitalized on this symbolism to claim that Gezi was, in the words of Islamist poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-1983), only “Erdoğan district going berserk.” In the final instance, Erdoğan succeeded. He reinforced his hold over his constituency and prevented any splits; he confined Gezi’s influence to a specific cultural, and of course, geographic location.

So portraying the AKP’s base who mobilized against the military coup as a fascist mass movement or a new version of a “31 March incident” (i.e., the “reactionary” countercoup against the Young Turk revolution of 1908) is repeating the same errors of the near past. There were certainly elements that can be described as fascist on these demonstrations. However, the people who went to the streets against the coup attempt were in their majority AKP supporters. On the one hand they were defending democracy, but on the other hand it is realistic to assume that for their majority, democracy means something akin to an autocratic-majoritarian dominant party rule. Many of them were workers who, although their capacity to act as a class has weakened due to the neoliberal policies of AKP, nevertheless believe that AKP rule means material and symbolic gains for them.

This is of course because of the success of the AKP’s right-wing populist appeal, and is certainly a major contradiction. However, portraying those mobilizations in toto as fascist (or Islamofascist), means that the Left resigns from any effort to deal with and transform that contradictory popular consciousness. This of course is not an easy task, but leaving aside such potentials in such contradictory times (and also sharing the popular belief in the West and in Turkey that Erdoğan after the coup is omnipotent) equals resigning from politics itself.   

The Left can gain strength, as far as it opens up cracks in AKP’s hegemony over its base—otherwise it will be limited to a single “neighborhood.” It is necessary to broaden any existing cracks within the AKP constituency, which is, of course, a challenging task in itself. In other words, we need to find means of reaching out to the worker who expresses his reaction against the boss through religious terms, or the pious student who criticizes the oppression against Kurds. By transcending the dominant political antagonism and the cultural barriers that it maintains, women, youth, and workers now part of AKP’s “neighborhood” will undoubtedly make very valuable—albeit at first hesitant—contributions to the freedom fight against AKP's conservative, neoliberal, and authoritarian policies.

The failed coup attempt showed the strength but also the weaknesses of Erdoğanism. In such a contradictory situation, what we need is broad alliances for the defence of democratic rights that will transcend the cultural barriers (secular vs. Islamic, “Western” vs. “national/traditional” ways of life etc.) that Erdoğan’s conservative and right wing populism so successfully maintains. In the recent past, we could not do much to counter Erdoğan’s manoeuvres to align political antagonisms along the supposed cultural wedge between “Westernized, denationalized elites” vs. the “core of the nation” (read: the Sunni Muslim population). As previously mentioned, this divide and rule policy of cultural wars was very effective during AKP’s rule since it made class politics almost impossible. Thus, for class politics, we should not limit ourselves to a liberal critique of Erdoğan, but attend to the crucial need to link democratic demands with social and class demands. This is the case because the political balance of power that has led to increasing authoritarianism can only be altered by a change in the existing social-class balance of power in favor of the workers.

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