Articles

Coups, Mobs, and Charisma: a Pattern in the Turkish Political Culture

BARIS ERSOY | THE ERSOY BRIEFING

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A year ago, Turkey was rocked by a coup attempt that, on the surface, appeared to be reminiscent of past coups in modern Turkish history but ultimately allowed President Erdogan to justify an unprecedented centralization of executive power. As Turkish politics remain historically polarized, the subject of the coup attempt of July 2016 is being politicized by both the Turkish government and the opposition. While ideologically-rigid opposition parties would generally like to believe that President Erdogan must have engineered the coup à la the Reichstag Fire, Erdogan’s own constituency, having built a personality cult around him that sees Erdogan as the ultimate paragon and savior of the Turkish republic, believe that the coup must have been a part of a grand international conspiracy to weaken Turkey. However, one only needs to look at history to understand that the recent events in Turkish history are part of a pattern that has been repeating itself for centuries.

Palace intrigues and military coups have been a staple of not only the modern Turkish republic, but of the Ottoman political system since the formation of the Ottoman state in 1299, when the founder of the Ottoman dynasty Osman Bey assassinated his uncle Dundar Bey to amass political capital. The Ottomans emulated, and eventually amalgamated with, the political culture of the Byzantine court with all its Roman-inherited traditions of statecraft such as: the concept of Basileus Basileon, “The Regent of Regents,” which was a cornerstone of the Ottoman diplomatic protocol that equated foreign monarchs with the Ottoman Grand Vizier in stature, the claim to be a continuation of the Roman Empire–hence the designation of sultans as Kayser-i-Rum, the Caesar of Rome, and last but not the least, the concept of the Praetorian guard as a double-edged political sword in the form of the Janissary corps.

The Janissaries, an elite military force that served the Sultan but swore an oath of fealty to the cult of Haji Bektashi Veli, a mystic who lived in the 13th century, frequently staged coups against sitting Sultans over displeasure with court politics. For almost four centuries, the Ottoman sultans lived at the mercy of the Janissary corps, to the degree that many military expeditions were made for the sole purpose of placating the Janissaries. At the height of their power, they raided the Topkapi Palace, unceremoniously executed Sultan Osman II, and installed his mentally incapacitated brother to the throne. As the Ottoman Empire began to decline and transitioned into a defensive posture, the Janissaries were deemed too volatile by Sultan Mahmud II, who initiated a purge in 1826 that saw the Bektashi Order outlawed and every Janissary executed.

While the Janissary corps and the general Ottoman ground forces were disbanded in favor of Prussian military doctrine, the latter days of the Ottoman Empire continued to feature coups by officers, from the forced abdications of Sultans Abdulaziz in 1870 and Abdulhamid in 1878, to the infamous Young Turk revolution of 1913, when a cadre of nationalist officers overthrew the entire government and plunged the Ottoman Empire into WWI.

Ataturk’s ascendance as a charismatic reformer who carved out the modern Republic of Turkey from the tattered remnants of the Ottoman Empire, also failed to change the deeply embedded predisposition for coups and faction-politics in the Turkish political psyche, as military officers fiercely loyal to Ataturk’s vision toppled populist governments in 1960 and 1980. This time around, in 2017, it was not the secularists who sought to topple Erdogan, but adherents of a socioreligious movement led by Sufist preacher in exile, Fetullah Gulen. Gulen had fled Turkey in the waning days of the last military junta era, and the followers of the movement he founded have been making inroads into the Turkish bureaucracy and military for decades. For the first decade of Erdogan’s tenure, the Gulenists and Erdogan’s ruling AKP were allied in deconstructing the secularist apparatus. Erdogan and Gulen had a falling out shortly thereafter, however, and history repeated itself.

This time the coup failed primarily because the formal chain of command did not buckle, and secondarily because social media allowed Erdogan to unleash his ultimate advantage over the past Turkish and Ottoman statesmen: millions of frenzied supporters who see him as the absolute incarnation of popular will.

The prospect of a future coup remains unlikely for as long as Erdogan remains in office. Barring a democratic loss in 2019, it would be reasonable to say that Erdogan has become a de facto Sultan who survived an onslaught of his former Janissaries.


Baris Ersoy is a graduate of the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. and is an expert on Turkey. For more on him, read his blog!

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