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Why is there a coup happening in Turkey?

Why is this happening? TheJournal.ie takes a look at the background.

CHAOTIC SCENES FROM Turkey are being broadcast across the world tonight as the military launched a full-scale coup.

The Turkish military says that it “has taken over” and installed martial law in its bid to overthrow the democratically-elected government. At the same time, Associated Press is quoting a senior government official who says that the coup has already been unsuccessful.

This is the third coup since Turkey was created as a modern state in 1923.

Why is this happening? TheJournal.ie takes a look at the historical and political background that has led us to here.

What is happening right now?

Turkey Military Coup Source: Emrah Gurel

One expert has described tonight’s events as a “20th-century coup taking place in the 21st-century,” as the Turkish military appears to have systematically targeted transport, communication, and the state broadcaster in its attempt to overthrow the government.

Events have unfolded quickly since initial reports of military operations in Ankara and Istanbul began to surface at around 9pm Irish time.

Initial reports said that soldiers had blocked off two major bridges across the Bosphorus in Istanbul to stop traffic from crossing it, while the BBC reported that military jets were seen flying low over Ankara.

At around 9.30pm Irish time, the country’s prime minister, Binali Yildrim, went on television to say that a group within the military was attempting a coup and that the military action was being taken outside of the chain of command.

Shortly afterwards, the Turkish military forced the state broadcaster TRT to read out a statement saying:

Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that was damaged.

As of now, the military is in place at a number of Turkey’s airports and across strategic points in Istanbul, according to Reuters. There are reports that 17 police officers have been killed so far, as thousands of people have turned out on the streets of Istanbul – some to support the coup but others to protest against it. Soldiers are in place at the state broadcaster and other television stations, while access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has been restricted, according to reports.

Some things remain unclear: it is not yet known how much of the military is involved in this coup, or who its leaders are, for example.

President Erdogan’s location has been kept secret for most of the evening but in a bizarre television interview given over FaceTime on a mobile phone, he urged people to take to the streets to protest against the coup.

erdogan President Erdogan making a statement via video message on Turkish TV earlier this evening Source: Sky News

“Sooner or later, they all fail,” he said.

Why now? Is the government not democratically elected?

In simplistic terms, yes, the government and the president were democratically elected.

In November last year, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – the party of President Tayyip Erdogan – surprised many by wining enough seats for a single-party government. It won almost 50% of the vote.

But commentators would say that the situation is more complicated than that, seeing Erdogan as a strongman president.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power as the country’s Prime Minister in 2003 as leader of the AKP. He remained at the helm of the party – and the country – until 2014. In August of that year, he became Turkey’s first democratically elected president. However, he then worked to make the role different by attempting to hand himself executive powers by changing the constitution.

Turkey Attack Source: Lefteris Pitarakis

Further intricacies are raised by the question of the separation of religion and state that pops up again and again in Turkish history.

Whether Turkey is a secular or Islamist state is a difficult question to answer – and one that has been asked time and time again over the past few months. A cursory google search will yield countless articles.

It is an important debate for Turkish people and has made the country’s current ruler an incredibly divisive character.

Erdoğan, who originally came from an Islamist political background, has in recent months denied that he is moving Turkey away from secularism and turning it into a more conservative, Islamist state. During the early years of his career, he spent time in jail for religious incitement but then framed himself as a more conservative democrat.

A debate has raged this year about whether the country’s constitution should enshrine secularism or whether it should be an Islamist one.

(The current one – made under military rule in 1982 – holds up the principle of secularism in Article 2. The army continues to see itself as the defender of this secularism.)

The president’s opponents have taken issue with some of his recent moves – including trying to impose alcohol-free zones and to criminalise adultery – describing them as Islamist policies, using them as proof of how he wants to move towards an Islamist state.

Erdogan has denied this.

However, his enemies have other problems too. They have also accused the president of holding authoritarian impulses. On taking up what was once just a ceremonial role (similar to what we have in Ireland), he built himself a new, luxury palace at the edge of Ankara, costing the State hundreds of millions.

There has also been evidence of Erdogan trying to silence opponents by using his own power – both politically and within the judiciary. Journalists have been arrested and expelled, with others describing how they were harassed before being deported.

In 2013, senior military officers were handed down life sentences in prison for a plot to overthrow the ruling AKP party.

The 62-year-old was democratically elected though. He has a huge support base, particularly among a conservative, Muslim base. His well-documented charisma has also won him followers, many of whom have taken to the streets tonight to defend him in the face of the action. They have been heard chanting his name in shows of solidarity.

Turkey Military Coup Source: Emrah Gurel

History of Coups

Given all these competing tensions, it’s no surprise that there is precedent for what’s happened tonight.

Turkey has faced three military coups (as well as a mini one in 1997) since its creation in 1923, because the military sees itself as a guardian of democracy which can intervene when necessary to defend and protect the secular republic created by Mustafa Ataturk.

In 1960, almost four decades after the creation of the state, the military intervened in government for the first time in what Time magazine described as “a largely bloodless military coup” – with one notable exception.

The coup took place after the government, led by autocratic president Adnan Menderes, began breaking away from the strict rules imposed by Ataturk and introducing new rules to allow for more religion in daily life, including allowing thousands of mosques to reopen and permitting prayers in Arabic.

Mr. Adnan Menderes with Winston Churchill Adnan Menderes (left) with Winston Churchill in 1952 Source: Associated Press

The army intervened and overthrew the government on 27 May in order to restore the country to the secular vision set out by Ataturk. Menderes was arrested, tried for treason and executed. The leader of the coup, Cemal Gursel, ended up staying in power for six years.

Eleven years later in 1971, Turkey’s economy was a mess. Inflation was soaring, workers were staging protests and the country was in a recession. 

In March of that year, the military intervened with what became known as a “coup by memorandum”.

Rather than direct military intervention, a group of military leaders had a memo read out on radio saying that the government had pushed the country into “anarchy, fratricide and social and economic unrest,” so the army was “fulfilling [its] legal duty” by taking power. The prime minister resigned hours later. The army oversaw a series of governments that lasted until 1973.

The resulting period of government was unstable, however, with eleven prime ministers throughout the 1970s. In 1980 the military took matters into its own hands after a long period of political infighting during which no laws had been passed and violent clashes had left thousands of people dead, Time reports.

PA-8688497 A tank in Ankara's main square in September 1980 Source: Associated Press

In September of that year, a group of high-profile army generals went on state television to announce that they were dissolving the democratically-elected government and imposing martial law. The generals told the country that the military would stay in charge until a functioning government could be put together.

The existing constitution was revoked and a referendum was held on a new one, which was approved by more than 90% of voters in 1982. Elections were then held and Kenan Evren, one of the generals who led the coup, remained in power for the next seven years.

The regime is credited with bringing some economic stability to Turkey. However at the same time, human rights abuses were widespread; hundreds of thousands of people were detained by the military, while many others were tortured, executed, or ‘disappeared’.

Given these three clear coups, what happened in Turkey in 1997 was a very different beast – and one which some academics have taken to referring to as a ‘post-modern coup’.

In that year, the military put together a series of recommendations which it gave to the government, leaving ministers with little choice as to whether or not they could accept them.

The ‘suggestions’ included a ban on headscarves at universities and other measures designed to roll back the influence of religion in Turkish life. The prime minister was forced to resign and was banned from politics for five years.

One of the members of the prime minister’s party was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who went on to help found a new political party – the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – which would come to power years later.

Despite the increasing tension between the secular and Islamic cleavages in Turkey in recent years, tonight’s coup was still unexpected. It had been 19 years since the last time the military intervened in the running of government, and more than 30 years since it last tried – and succeeded – in overthrowing a government.

World reaction

The rest of the world is looking on at the unfolding events, initially unsure what side to take or what to say.

Turkey is a member of both the OECD and Nato, which is an unusual situation for a country in the middle of a coup.

Most world leaders first called for ‘restraint’ in terms of the use of violence by either the military or Erdogan’s supporters.

As the hours rolled on, more and more Western nations came out to back Erdogan’s ‘democratically elected government’.

First the EU’s foreign policy chief has asked for the democratic institutions of the country to be respected.

The White House echoed this statement, with Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry saying “all parties in Turkey should support the democratically-elected government of Turkey, show restraint, and avoid any violence or bloodshed”.

Tonight’s action will be concerning for Brussels, however, given the closer relationship the bloc has had with the country in recent years, including in deals made to handle the current migrant and refugee crisis.

BREAKING: A military coup is underway in Turkey

 

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About the author:

Christine Bohan and Sinéad O'Carroll

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