For outside observers of the confusing drama of Turkey’s coup attempt on Friday night—the blocked bridges, the low-flying jets, an embattled president FaceTiming the nation with a plea for supporters to take to the streets—it was difficult to locate an unambiguous good guy among rival claimants to Turkey’s leadership. (Among ordinary Turkish citizens, the good guys were plainly visible, for example among protesters confronting tanks and journalists continuing to broadcast after soldiers invaded their studio.)
But for supporters of liberal democracy, there were few other heroes to cheer on. There was only the deeply strange spectacle of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the elected strongman of Turkey who has consolidated power and silenced opposition, landing in Istanbul to vanquish the putschists like some sort of democratic savior. Erdogan’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim—the constitutional head of government who serves as a figurehead in Erdogan’s de facto, one-man presidential rule—remarked as the coup attempt was unfolding that “Our people should know that we will not allow any activity that would harm democracy.”
Erdogan’s decade-plus tenure itself has been replete with such activity. As Dion Nissenbaum detailed in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, under Erdogan:
An escalating effort to silence debate has had a chilling effect on an assortment of students, teachers, truck drivers, opposing politicians, business executives, journalists and celebrities, many of whom have said they are more afraid to publicly question the president. Press-freedom groups say nearly 900 journalists have lost their jobs. Prosecutors have accused people of insulting the Turkish leader by using a law invoked infrequently before Mr. Erdogan became president in 2014. He has transformed the job, once seen as largely ceremonial, into the country’s most powerful post.
And under Erdogan, on Saturday, the purges began, with the arrests of nearly 3,000 military personnel and the dismissal of almost as many judges.