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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency following a failed coup that was launched by a small faction of military against his conservative government. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan has rounded up and arrested tens of thousands of educators, judges, soldiers, police officers and other civil servants believed to have ties to the opposition. Experts say Erdogan’s actions are the latest in his ongoing effort to consolidate power in the hands of the president.
The events in recent weeks threaten to undermine the stability that has made Turkey the world’s singular example of a majority Muslim country with a functioning and enduring democracy. The unrest also creates questions about Turkey’s future role in the region. Arthur Sculley, a senior fellow at The Fletcher School’s Council on Emerging Markets Enterprises at Tufts University, and Lisel Hintz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University, joined the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM to shed light on what is happening in Turkey and where the nation is headed. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
Here are four key takeaways from the discussion about the unrest in Turkey. Jump to the corresponding spot in the podcast using the time codes provided.
1. Erdogan is taking advantage of the upheaval. Since he was elected president in 2014, Erdogan has been making an unprecedented power grab. He’s been criticized for cracking down on press freedoms, weakening the judiciary and rooting out opposition members in a decidedly undemocratic fashion. The failed coup attempt has given the leader another reason to go hard against those he perceives as a threat, and the result has been mass arrests.
“Turkey was, up until a few years ago, really considered one of the countries that was going to lead the Middle East in trying to [solve] problems. Now, it became the problem itself.”–Arthur Sculley
“The key message here is that Erdogan is using this as an excuse to basically clean out his opposition,” Sculley says. (02:33). “Turkey was, up until a few years ago, really considered one of the countries that was going to lead the Middle East in trying to [solve] problems. Now, it became the problem itself.” (07:00).
Hintz agrees that Erdogan is “taking advantage” of the situation by using his far-reaching powers under the state of emergency decree to do as he pleases. Hintz, who has spent much time in Turkey, points out that conspiracy theorizing is a bit of a national pastime there, so it’s no surprise that many wonder whether Erdogan was behind the coup attempt. But that is of no consequence now. “Who is behind it right now is less important because accusations are being hurled back and forth,” she says. (10:42) “What is suspicious, to say the least, is how quickly thousands and thousands of people in the opposition were rounded up. Rather than who did it, I think the way in which Erdogan is taking advantage of the coup so quickly, so forcefully … he’s really using it to his advantage to clean house.”
2. With Erdogan in power, Turkey’s role in the region becomes unclear. Turkey has long been a unique player on the world stage. With its blend of the secular and the religious, Turkey has a culture that has been created from a variety of influences. From both a geographical and ethnic perspective, Turkey is not quite European and not quite Middle Eastern. But that unusual position has allowed the nation to play an important economic, political and military role in the region. Erdogan has been criticized for isolating longtime allies, including Russia and several European nations. Once under consideration for membership in the European Union, Turkey’s chances now seem remote at best.
“Not so long ago, it wasn’t such a far-fetched idea,” Hintz said. (08:45) But Turkey’s political upheaval coupled with its financial crisis move it farther away from the path to inclusion in the EU. European leaders also dislike the steps Erdogan is taking to curb human rights and reinstate the death penalty. “I don’t see it happening,” Hintz said of EU membership.
Also at issue is Turkey’s larger role in the religious turmoil of the Middle East. The conservative Erdogan is seen as soft on the Islamic State, and questions about what will happen in neighboring Syria linger. Sculley points out the Erdogan was always against keeping Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power, but he’s now backing away from that sentiment. Erdogan could emerge as a leader in getting others to come to the table to negotiate a short-term or long-term plan for Syria, he said. “Nobody wants to own Syria,” Sculley said. “The crisis in Syria affects all of the countries in the Middle East, particularly Turkey.” (18:45). Following the coup, Erdogan has also made overtures to Russia and Iran, which could also be good for Turkey’s role in the region, Sculley said.
“I think the way in which Erdogan is taking advantage of the coup so quickly, so forcefully…he’s really using it to his advantage to clean house.”–Lisel Hintz
3. Who is Fethullah Gulen? An Islamic cleric from Turkey who is self-exiled in rural Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen is accused of inciting the failed coup. But who is he and how does this elderly man, whose health is failing, factor into the political turmoil?
The answer lies in the history of Gulen’s complicated relationship with Erdogan. Once allies, the two men worked together to steer the government in a less secular direction. But the two has a falling out and Gulen left Turkey in 1999 amid rumors he was trying to overthrow the government. That was several years before Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and then president in 2014. Since Gulen’s exile, Erdogan has continued to suspect him of trying to thwart his government, primarily through the educational system. (12:30)
“Erdogan is concerned about Turkish education and he wants greater control over it,” Sculley explains. “He particularly wants to introduce more Islamic subjects into the schools. I’m not saying turn this into an Islamic state, but certainly have a greater emphasis on religion, and that is his way of getting control. I think he’s very suspicious of Gulen supporters.”
With no forces on the horizon to stop Erdogan from consolidating power, it is highly likely that the last strings tying Turkey to traditional democracy will be cut.
4. Turkey’s future is very uncertain. With no forces on the horizon to stop Erdogan from consolidating power, it is highly likely that the last strings tying Turkey to traditional democracy will be cut. With the systemic destruction of democratic institutions, Erdogan appears to be ensuring his rule will be long and unchallenged. “He is using this to get complete control of the country. His goal is to be the president with basically no checks and balances,” Sculley said. (14:55). “His competition is Attaturk, who died in 1937 and created the new Turkey. What Erdogan wants to have is the new ‘new’ Turkey, which he will always be remembered by. Whether we like it or not, we are going to have to live with a Turkey that is going to be ruled by one man.” Hintz reflects on how the United States viewed Turkey a model for democracy in the region. Now, she said, that model “has imploded.” As for the nation’s future, Hintz describes it as dim. “I think the future looks very bleak indeed.”
Photo credit: By Lubunya – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50206309