Turkey's Putsch and the Democratic Dilemma

When the military tries to overthrow a strongman, who is there to root for?

People stand on a Turkish Army tank in Ankara. (Tumay Berkin / Reuters)

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.

And yet Erdogan remains Turkey’s elected president, which underscores the tension between procedural democracy and liberal values. Writing in The Atlantic recently, Shadi Hamid described this tension:

In the American experience, democracy and liberalism seemed to go hand in hand, to such an extent that democracy really just became shorthand for “liberal democracy.” As Richard Youngs writes in his excellent study of non-Western democracy, liberalism and democracy have historically been “rival notions and not bedfellows.” Liberalism is about non-negotiable personal rights and freedoms. Democracy, while requiring some basic protection of rights to allow for meaningful competition, is more about popular sovereignty, popular will, and accountability and responsiveness to the voting public. Which, of course, raises the question: What if voters don’t want to be liberal and vote accordingly?

How is liberal democracy to emerge in that case—a case like Turkey’s? Does it require force? And can the overthrow of an elected leader really yield a more liberal-democratic government than whatever preceded it?

Turkey’s own history has provided repeated tests of this last question; David Graham on Friday described the country’s “semi-regular pattern of military coups … in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.” In the past, these moves have enjoyed popular support, and military leaders have restored civilian government. The long-term trajectory, right up to Erdogan’s current authoritarian moment, has not been in a more democratic direction. “In each and every one of these military interventions beginning in 1960s, the military has altered constitutions in a way that makes it more difficult for certain groups to contest politics,” Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

Cook said it didn’t follow that, because Erdogan is authoritarian, a coup to remove him would be good for democracy. “Neither this faction within the military [that attempted the coup] nor [Erdogan’s party] the AKP have good democratic credentials. … There’s also large numbers of Turks who hate Erdogan but don’t want to live under military rule.”

But something important has changed in Turkish politics. All of Turkey’s four main political parties, including the opposition, have condemned the coup attempt, as did top military leaders, with one general denouncing “this movement comprised of a small group within our ranks.” Cook said: “I think what’s important is that regardless of the quality of Turkish politics, there are a lot of Turks who don’t want the military to intervene. Unlike previous coups in 1980, 1997, where the public welcomed the military’s intervention, in this you did not have that at all.”

None of this adds up to a democratic breakthrough. And as Erdogan moved to eliminate alleged plotters and further consolidate power on Saturday, liberal democracy moved even further away.