July 23, 2024

Turkey: Let’s close the chapter of coups

By: Galip Dalay*

The government should have a well-developed plan for dealing with the country’s major issues.

Since the failed coup attempt, Turkey has been struggling to deal with the aftershock, grieving for the loss of more than 250 lives and caring for more than 2,000 who have been injured.

The country, however, has emerged more cohesive, with shows of unity across almost the entire spectrum of political and social classes.

Political classes of all stripes have rejected the coup attempt by the rogue Gulenist network, which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey since 2014, and celebrated the nation’s sense of ownership of Turkey’s democracy, which contributed to the failure of the attempted coup.

All these are encouraging. The nation’s sense of ownership and the maturity of the political classes underpin Turkey’s democracy.


These are necessary but not sufficient conditions for permanently closing the door on the age of coups, and terminating the shady and illegal activities of rogue elements within the state. More is needed.

Three measures in particular are vital to achieving a coup-free political future for the country and disincentivising any rogue group seeking first to dominate state institutions, and then to abuse the power that it acquires through this domination for its own parochial group agenda.

Structurally, the overcentralised nature of the Turkish state makes it easier for the would-be coup plotters to achieve their goals and for a well-organised rogue element to exercise a disproportionate level of power.

Ideologically, Turkey’s overcentralised and ideologically proactive state creates incentives for sociopolitical or religious groups to seek a presence within it and influence it through public institutions and state machinery in order to fulfil their sociopolitical designs for the state and society at large.

Politically – or in terms of political culture – the lack of proper political interaction, dialogue and problem-solving mechanisms between the ruling parties and other opposition groups has paved the way for actors to gain a non-democratic foothold in the political sphere and acquire political power, which they have invariably abused.

Whether out of necessity or by choice, whenever Turkey’s current and previous governments have opted for a partner to deal with major challenges or impending crises, they have chosen their partner from outside the arliament and political sphere.

Turkey’s overcentralised administrative system creates an incentive for groups first to increase their presence within the state apparatus and then to dominate it.

In most indicators of centralisation, Turkey is far above the OECD average. For instance, the central government collects almost 70 percent of total revenues, far more than the OECD average of 58 percent (PDF).

Even more strikingly, 85 percent of public servants work for the central government in Turkey, while only 15 percent work in local government. This is the highest ratio among OECD countries.

Disproportionate power

In an overcentralised system, it is relatively easier for certain groups to wield disproportionate power over the system.

Once you control key positions in some of the key institutions, you can project influence incommensurate with your actual size or support. The case of the Gulenist network and its actions within the state machinery confirm this point.

As a corollary, decentralisation will by default tame the ambition of groups seeking to infiltrate and dominate the system, as the number of institutions, and the geographic and administrative distribution of these institutions, will be more numerous and wider. The state’s power will not be concentrated in the centre. Instead, it will be more defuse.

Moreover, this overcentralised state is also extremely proactive in attempting to influence the identity and ideology of its society through social engineering.

For a long time, the Turkish state encouraged a preferred identity of secular, Western-oriented nationalism, while securitising the Kurdish and Islamist identities.

Those whose identity was securitised believed that the only way to change this was through gaining access to the levers of power within the state structure.

Such a belief coupled with the nature of the state gave the state apparatus a strong pull factor for any group that aspired to make its imprint on public life.

In this respect, the Gulenist network was partially the product of Turkey’s authoritarian, overly centralised Kemalist state. The government should take a lesson from this experience, and strive to make the state blind to identities and remainideologically neutral.

Lessons to be learned

The interaction and cooperation between political parties and elites has proven critical in defeating the coup attempt, showing us the way forward for sorting out the other major challenges that Turkey is facing.

Whether out of necessity or by choice, whenever Turkey’s current and previous governments have opted for a partner to deal with major challenges or impending crises, they have chosen their partner from outside the parliament and political sphere.

For instance, in taming the politically meddlesome, threatening and coup-prone military, the Justice and Development Party felt obliged to cooperate with the Gulenists particularly between 2007 and 2010, when the power struggle within the military was at its peak.

As a result, the Gulenists greatly expanded their presence within the state structure, laying the ground for their future shady and illegal activities.

Likewise, the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since July 2015 has seen the military eating into some of the power of civilian governors.

Therefore, the cooperation of the civilian government with non-political forces has ended up empowering the latter.

If history is a precedent, whenever these non-political forces have acquired too much power, they have abused it. The latest coup attempt is a clear testament to this.

This picture also reveals that the non-settlement of major political issues has provided fertile ground for groups to acquire large amounts of power through undemocratic means.

Moreover, the absence of a functioning political dialogue and cooperation between the governing party and opposition parties has paved the way for alternative, unaccountable groups to emerge to fill the void.

The lesson that needs to be taken from this is that the government should have a well-developed plan for dealing with the country’s major issues.

Finally, in its endeavours, the government should seek the assistance of the opposition. Such engagement between the government and opposition will not leave loopholes or voids in the political system for rogue elements to fill and abuse.

*Galip Dalay is a senior associate fellow on Turkish and Kurdish affairs at al-Jazeera Center for Studies, and research director at Al-Sharq Forum. He is also a columnist at Middle East Eye.

(Published in Al-Jazeera on Friday, August 19, 2016 )