Explaining the end of the military tutelary regime and the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey

by Koray Caliskan August 30, 2016

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What were the dynamics behind the July 15 2016 coup attempt in Turkey? At a time when academic literature has been focusing on the dissolution of the country’s military tutelary regime, how can this military coup attempt be explained? As an early response to this unanticipated puzzle, I argue that the success of civilian moves towards the dissolution of the military’s political power contributed – paradoxically – both to the emergence, and to the failure, of a coup organized by a junta of Gulenist officers and their collaborators. Through a description of the historical evolution of civil – military relations, I explain the dissolution of the military tutelary regime with reference to a combination of push and pull factors.

A military tutelary regime is a political system dominated by non-elected military officers and ruled by elected officials. Hybrid in nature and borrowing institutions and practices from democracy and authoritarianism, tutelary regimes provide on-duty and retired officers with rights and devices to deploy political power when they deem it necessary.

Starting in the mid-twentieth century, Turkey’s people became subject to the power of tanks alongside that of democracy. Since 1950, the soldiers’ shadows receded at the end of every decade, only to be followed by the dark clouds of a coup d’état. The coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 dissolved years of political organizing, brutally punished dissidents, and imposed bans on various political actors. Yet, none of these coups, nor the 1997 intervention and the 2016 failed coup attempt resulted in a lasting military government (though there were three brief periods in 1960-61, 1971-73, and 1980-83). Reluctantly taming their political aspirations, the soldiers stayed away from directly governing the country’s everyday affairs after each of these coups, which were instead aimed at increasing and maintaining their tutelary powers.

Since establishing the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) in 2001, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has learned lessons from the failures of previous generations of Islamists about how to deal with the military and its civil allies. Erdoğan became Prime Minister in 2003 and Turkey’s 12th president in 2014. Until the July coup attempt Erdoğan had largely avoided having to confront the military directly. Instead, he built a coalition against the military tutelage and offered the country the carrot of the European Union in order to control the stick of the military. Presenting himself as an openly pro-EU and pro-Western politician, he adjusted the negative image of his Islamist-leaning AKP and promised democratization and economic development. Erdoğan’s way was to convince civil society to support his agenda so that the military would be pushed into institutional exclusion. By taking over its prerogatives one by one, politics could be set free of the military’s tutelage. It worked. The secular right wing, the undecided, Islamists, even a few socialist and social democrat groups supported Erdoğan’s agenda of democratization. Winning every local and national election after 2001, Erdoğan began to push the military further away from politics, crowning his party’s success by winning a constitutional referendum by a large margin in 2010.

Following these victories, the judiciary associated with the Fethullah Gulen Movement (the FGM), politically supported by Erdoğan, has scaled up accusations of various officers of planning coups against civilian political rule. As a result of the ensuing trials, the number of arrested and prosecuted officers has exceeded 340, more than 60 of which were generals and admirals. This was the first time in modern Turkey’s history that a civilian court prosecuted top-ranking military officers—even the Chief of the General Staff—for planning a coup d’état. These cases, however, produced more heat that justice. Their importance derived not from the validity of the accusations—many of them were dubious or fabricated[1]—but from the fact that civilian rule proved its strength by arresting even the Chief of the General Staff. The military remained silent during these court cases, at a time of mounting pressure for a decisive response. Instead of forcing civilians to resign from political office, for the first time in Turkey’s history, it was the entire senior command of the army, including the Chief of the General Staff Işık Koşaner, resigned in July 2011, criticizing the prosecution of military officers. This move symbolized the end of the tutelary regime in Turkey.

During these years, Erdoğan’s AKP saw Gulenist civil and military bureaucrats as allies, opening the entire civilian and military bureaucracy to the followers of the FGM to the extent that after the 2013 split of the AKP and the FGM, Erdoğan proclaimed, ‘Whatever they (Gulenists) wanted, we gave, including universities’ (Star 2013). During these years the Gulenists found various opportunities to rapidly increase their ranks in the army and get organized within the secular cadres of Turkish armed forces. But the increasing demands of the FGM from the AKP government reached a limit when Erdoğan began blocking the rise of FGM followers. The FGM first threatened to retaliate and then opened a political communications war against the AKP. It didn’t work: Erdoğan won the 2014 presidential election without difficulty and his AKP secured two parliamentary election victories in June 2015 and November 2016, increasing its share of the vote to 49.5 percent. These developments unfolded at a time when the FGM’s hundreds of private tutorial schools were closed down, their newspapers and TV channels were taken away, the tax authorities began to show their muscle against the FGM associated corporations.

Rapidly losing its power in public bureaucracy, media, judiciary and the market, the FGM then faced losing everything. The 2016 coup attempt came at a time when various prosecutors had taken decisive steps against Gulenists in the country and just a few weeks before the crucial Higher Military Council meeting, which had been announced by the AKP government as an opportunity to further decrease Gulenists’ power in the army. On July 15 2016 the FGM made their last response in the form of the failed coup.[2] Its failure became obvious as tens of thousands of Turkish citizens took to the streets against the tanks, the general command of the army worked hard to suppress the plotters, and Erdoğan gave a defiant live interview from Istanbul Atatürk Airport before sunrise, insisting that the coup attempt failed.

All coups in modern Turkey’s history have aimed at a creating an order that soldiers preferred. In stark contrast to previous coups, the Gulenists and their collaborators during the July 15 attempt aimed at producing disorder, in order to win time to bring together the necessary civil, media, and military coalition to gain back the prerogatives the army has lost since 2010. The response to the coup attempt was just as novel as the attempt itself: the plot failed spectacularly when all of political society, from the government to the main opposition, Turkish nationalists to the Kurdish political movement, stood firmly against the plotters.

So how can we explain the end of one of the longest-lived tutelary regimes in the world? How should we make sense of the emergence of a coup attempt during the very dissolution of Turkey’s military tutelary regime? In the full paper that will appear in the 10th anniversary special edition of the Journal of Cultural Economy in January 2017, I discuss how this came about through a series of pull and push factors including, significantly, the incorporation of the military into a neo-liberal market regime.


[1] For a list of allegations and proofs of fabrication, see The Washington Post, March 10, 2011, ‘Turkey’s bad example on democracy and authoritarianism’. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/10/AR2011031005620.html.
[2] Fethullah Gulen denied his involvement in the coup attempt, yet witness accounts, testimonies, and interviews of Gulenist and non-Gulenist officers, all chiefs of staff, including the chief of staff Hulusi Akar show that Gulenist officers were behind the organization of the coup attempt, well-documented by least pro-government and independent media. For these accounts see http://www.milliyet.com.tr/orgeneral-hulusi-akar-in-gundem-2283595/ ; http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/570760/Ve_Orgeneral_Akar_in_yaveri_itiraf_etti_.html