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Why the Turkish military still attempts coups

- July 18, 2016
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gather at Taksim square in Istanbul to support the government on July 16 after a failed coup attempt. (Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse)

The Turkish coup attempt took many by surprise. Conventional wisdom among journalists, analysts and Turkish citizens suggested that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had successfully “defanged” the military as a credible force of political opposition. His growing consolidation of power was touted as seemingly irreversible. Although we now know the coup failed, its very occurrence suggests that Erdogan was not as well insulated as previously thought.

Why do analysts often underestimate the degree to which civilians control the military?

A cursory evaluation of Turkish politics under Erdogan suggests that one could be forgiven for underestimating the probability of a coup. Shortly after coming to office, Erdogan systematically purged the military of officers whom he suspected of disloyalty. These purges occurred with the aid of Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Islamist preacher leading a social movement with some support within the military. Fearing the growing political strength of the movement, Erdogan turned on his former ally and purged Gulen’s loyalists in the military and police. Although Gulen’s supporters are being blamed for the coup attempt, these purges previously appeared to have cemented Erdogan’s control. For all appearances, the military was tamed.

Yet, scholarship on the relationship between civilian elites and the military would suggest caution before concluding that civilian control is established in Turkey. The core challenge faced by Erdogan, like many other leaders, is asserting control over an institution that typically has a virtual monopoly on the use of armed violence within the state.

Because the armed forces cannot be easily coerced, the core of civilian control often hinges on a norm of subjugation within the military – members of the armed forces do not intervene in politics because they believe doing so violates military ideals and will not be supported by their colleagues or society at large. Although sometimes given different labels, such norms have been central in our of civil-military relations.

My research argues that these norms of subjugation develop slowly, growing in strength as time passes since past instances of military intervention in politics. Turkey’s history suggests that norms of subjugation are not yet fully formed, either within the military or society at large. Turkey has experienced frequent military intervention in politics, with coup attempts occurring with relative frequency from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Most recently, the military intervened in 1997 to remove an Islamist prime minister from office. For much of its history, the military has considered itself the guardian of secular rule in Turkey, and this belief both undermines the norm of civilian control and legitimizes military intervention in politics.

How did this weakly held norm of subjugation to civilian rule influence the strategic calculations made by the coup plotters?

Military elites generally try to coordinate when planning and carrying out coups. To protect the well-being of their subordinates, military officers have a strong incentive to support whichever side of a coup they think will win. This is itself a function of both the beliefs individual military personnel and their beliefs about what their contemporaries and the citizenry at large think. If a sufficiently strong norm of civilian control has been achieved, citizens and military personnel will believe that coups are unlikely to succeed and therefore should not be pursued.

So why did the coup plotters miscalculate?

While the norm of subjugation was not firmly entrenched within the military or society at large, it was also not so weak that military factions could instigate a coup with the ease and legitimacy that seemed to characterize the frequent coups of previous decades. Without clear norms present to coordinate beliefs, the coup plotters had to generate what appear to be crude estimates about the degree of support they would receive. In this case, the indeterminate level of civilian control in Turkey lead the coup faction to overestimate the support it would receive from other elements of the military and underestimate the civilian opposition that would ultimately manifest on the streets of Ankara.

To determine whether this notion is borne out by data, I examine a measure of civilian control that I developed. I begin by gathering existing data on the degree to which military institutions affect political decision-making for all countries. Then, using a statistical measurement model, I generate estimates for how well civilian elites control the military within a particular country. The model also accounts for the accumulation of norms by allowing the estimates of civilian control to increase as time passes without military intervention in politics. At the one extreme, civilians hold no control when the military actively runs the country, and on the other strong norms of subjugation have been developed and military institutions are firmly subordinate to (or in rare cases even eliminated by) civilian elites.

As can be seen in this plot from 2010 — the most recent year for which data are available — Turkey is located roughly in the middle of the pack of countries, in terms of lowest to highest level of civilian control. This indeterminacy probably complicated the calculations made by the coup plotters. Analysts have been quick to label the attempted coup “amateurish” or “half-baked.” Even Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the coup did “not appear to have been a very brilliantly planned or executed event.” Although this may seem apparent now that the coup has failed, decisions were made in a difficult strategic environment lacking in norms that may have otherwise allowed the plotters to more precisely predict their success or failure. These difficulties may have been coupled with fears that future purges of the military were on the horizon.

In short, the coup appeared to defy conventional wisdom because appearances suggested that Erdogan’s purges were successful. Digging deeper, however, suggests that a norm of subjugation in the military had not yet been fully accepted, leading a faction to believe it could succeed in toppling civilian rule. This calls for caution when evaluating countries with a similar history of civilian rule: Appearances can be deceiving and the path to civilian control is often slow and hard-fought.

What does this mean for Turkey moving forward?

Erdogan is likely to take solace in the fact that he maintained support among the police, Turkish intelligence and much of the military. Reliance on both military factions and non-military security organizations can be critical in preventing a coup’s success. Ordinarily, building or strengthening these organizations to counterbalance the military risks retaliation from the armed forces.

Now that Erdogan has emerged with widespread popular support, he probably will take this opportunity to weaken institutions that might otherwise constrain him. He already has arrested 6,000 members of the armed forces and judiciary and declared the coup a “gift from God” that will allow him to “cleanse” the army. Staving off future interventions by the military will be critical if Erdogan hopes to imbue a shared expectation of civilian rule. Whether he succeeds in these pursuits and what this means for democracy remain open questions.

Michael R. Kenwick is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Pennsylvania State University with concentrations in international relations and quantitative methodology.