Turkey's Strongman Will Exploit The Failed Coup

Turkish soldiers, arrested by civilians, are handed to police officers in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, early Saturday,
Turkish soldiers, arrested by civilians, are handed to police officers in Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the nation Saturday that his government was working to crush a coup attempt after a night of explosions, air battles and gunfire across the Turkish capital of Ankara. (AP Photo/Selcuk Samiloglu)

Turkey may have thwarted a military coup d'etat on Friday night, but the result will almost certainly be the precipitous decline of Turkey's democracy, nevertheless.

As of this writing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already taken 6,000 people in to custody. This includes the arrests of more than 3,000 members of the military, 2,745 judges, 198 high court judges, and two of the 17 judges on the Constitutional Court. And that's just within the first 24 hours.

Erdogan has further made it clear that he will target the supporters and institutions of his archrival Fetullah Gulen, an exiled cleric now based in central Pennsylvania. The Turkish president's war on this "parallel structure," as he calls it, promises to be sweeping and devoid of due process. Indeed, the government has indicated that the coup has not yet been fully suppressed, opening the door for more arrests and raids across the country.

But arrests may be the least of it. The coup attempt comes amidst a campaign, now well underway, to erode the institutions that have made Turkey a proud democracy since 1923. Indeed, this campaign may have been a motivating factor for the mutineers.

In recent years, Erdogan has crushed Turkey's free expression. This includes the shuttering of opposition newspapers and other media outlets. Turkish journalists have been jailed for doing their jobs. Foreign journalists critical of Erdogan's have been booted from the country. Meanwhile, Erdogan has stifled social media (the government blocked social media during the coup attempt).

Erdogan has also crushed all attempts to investigate wrongdoing on the part of his government. Notably, a leaked prosecutor's report alleged corruption on an unimaginable scale in December 2013. Erdogan removed the lead prosecutor from the case. The government also purged police chiefs, magistrates, and other officials. The key figure from this corruption scandal is about to stand trial in the United States for Iran sanctions busting. The trial is likely to reveal more about this scandal than Erdogan was ever prepared to allow.

As if the picture were insufficiently bleak, Turkey's strongman is also amassing power by manipulating the country's political system. When he hit his political party's term limit as prime minister he clung to power by becoming president. But even that wasn't enough for him. Erdogan is now working to change Turkey's parliamentary system (which grants greater powers to the prime minister) to a presidential one.

In the wake of Friday's coup attempt, Erdogan is now poised to exploit the crisis and finish what he started. The emergency powers he grants himself will make the job that much easier.

In short, the attempted coup was deplorable and anti-democratic. But now that it has been quashed, Turkey is likely to be dominated by a strongman who has as little regard for democracy as the coup plotters.

Washington is well aware of Erdogan's illiberalism. Ties between U.S. President Barack Obama and Erdogan have been strained since Turkey's vicious crackdown on the peaceful Gezi Park protests of 2013. Turkey's lackluster response to the Islamic State on its eastern border, due in part to Erdogan's pro-Islamist leanings, has also drawn criticism from senior Obama Administration officials.

The disturbing trends continue. Just one day after the coup was put down, a Turkish minister charged on TV that the United States was behind it. The State Department has fired back, stating that, "public insinuations or claims about any role by the United States in the failed coup attempt are utterly false and harmful to our bilateral relations."

The Turkish government has cut power and closed the airspace around Incirlik airbase - a crucial U.S. and NATO military asset in Turkey - forcing operations against the Islamic State to grind to a halt. Operations have resumed, but it appears Erdogan wished to use the base as a bargaining chip to demand the extradition of Fetuallah Gulen. Turkey continues to press for this, even if the argument falls short of the legal threshold.

Washington, under the leadership of a president that regularly absorbs the provocations of problematic allies, will almost certainly downplay these disturbing developments to ensure that stability to returns to Turkey. This is understandable, given our interest in ensuring that this NATO ally remains viable and strong. Indeed, we should continue to condemn Friday's attempts to bring down Turkey's government by military force. But we also must not look the other way while Erdogan destroys Turkey's democracy under the pretense that he is defending it.