This is not what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meant when he said he wanted to transform Turkey. The tanks and gunfire in the streets of Ankara mark the fifth time since 1960 that the Turkish military has attempted to stage a coup. Even if this one proves unsuccessful — and the elected government now seems likely to come out on top — it calls into question the stability of Erdogan's political movement. How exactly did a leader who began his rule 13 years ago with such promise derail so badly?
Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power on Nov. 3, 2002. The AKP won 34 percent of the vote, not because one-third of Turkish voters necessarily supported Erdogan's conservative religious and social positions, but rather because they wanted change. The previous years had seen repeated corruption scandals, banking crises, and a precipitous decline in the value of the Turkish lira against the U.S. dollar.
Erdogan was initially banned from holding public office because of a trumped-up religious incitement conviction during his time as mayor of Istanbul, but he nonetheless promised good, clean governance and a fresh start. Many Turks who were fed up with the establishment decided to give the AKP a try.
The AKP also got lucky. The reason, ironically, dates back to the 1980 coup against which Erdogan so often rails. After the Turkish military ousted the government, it imposed a new constitution seeking to stabilize Turkey's volatile politics. In order to prevent a fragmented Parliament or create a situation in which governments could become beholden to tiny, niche parties (as has sometimes been the case in Israel), the 1982 constitution imposed by the military mandated that all parties would need to receive 10 percent of the vote to enter Parliament. Those that did not — and, in the 2002 elections, five parties got between 5 and 9 percent — would have their seats redistributed. Long story short, one-third of the votes transformed into a two-thirds grip on Parliament. That enabled the AKP to do pretty much whatever it wanted. One of its first actions? Change the law in order to allow Erdogan to enter government.
Still, Erdogan won plaudits. He stabilized the currency and then knocked six zeros off the Turkish lira. That meant Turks no longer had to be millionaires to buy a Coke. He also embraced a pro-business agenda that not only made investment easier, but also ensured that the state and its private partners spread investment around. Many of the old Turkish elite lived and invested in European Turkey but seldom ventured far into central Anatolia, except perhaps for a quick visit to Ankara. The AKP and its partners, however, pumped money into Anatolia, in cities like Konya and Kayseri. Turks not only got rich, but for the first time parts of the population that had long been ignored or trampled upon felt they got respect.
When it came to the economy, however, Erdogan also got lucky. As Turkey's economy developed, birthrates fell, and as longevity increased, so did the working-age population. It was an economic boom, similar to that which propelled the East Asian "Tigers" to prosperity in the last decades of the 20th century.
It also, however, masked some deeply troubling trends. While Turkey's debt-to-GDP ratio is relatively low at around 33 percent — a statistic that makes Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, let alone American economists drool — private debt has skyrocketed, according to bank analysts. Most Turks are heavily leveraged and see no hope to pay off the interest on their loans. This meant that even if official statistics looked bright, Turks increasingly sense dark clouds on the horizon.
Then there was Erdogan's arrogance. As he and his party won election after election, he dropped any pretense of governing for all Turks. "I will raise a religious generation," he declared, turning his back on the secularism that Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, imposed on the country more than 90 years ago. Rather than address the 1,400 percent increase in the murder rate of women, he instructed women to stay at home and have three children. He railed not only against abortions, but also C-sections, as violations of God's will. He simply no longer cared what Turkish liberals thought, or saw any need to represent them.
The same held true for the press. Many Turks initially supported Erdogan out of animosity toward the military and a belief that his commitment to reform was real. They soon learned, however, that Erdogan wanted not a free press, but rather an obsequious one. Even minor criticism could mean legal trouble. Turkey today has more reporters in prison on a per capita basis than any other country.
It didn't help matters that Erdogan clearly relished a fight. The 2013 Gezi Park uprising began as an environmental protest to save one of central Istanbul's few remaining green spaces, but heavy-handed police tactics transformed it into something far greater. After then-President Abdullah Gul's conciliatory words calmed the situation, Erdogan seemed to deliberately fan the flames.
He also turned on friends quickly. Take the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish theologian (now living in Pennsylvania) who preaches peace and religious tolerance. Both Erdogan and Gulen suffered at the hands of the military, and they worked fist-in-glove to unravel the military's influence in politics. As soon as Erdogan no longer needed Gulen's followers, however, he turned on them, confiscating businesses and assets, arresting them on trumped-up charges, and labeling them as terrorists.
His Kurdish policy suffered from the same cynicism. Kurds found hope in Erdogan's promises to resolve their decades-long grievances. He even began secret negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Promises fell by the wayside after each election, however, and when Turkish Kurds responded by voting for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), an overwhelmingly ethnic party rather than the AKP, he turned on them with vengeance, transforming southeastern Turkey into a war zone reminiscent of the worst days of the 1980s.
The biggest problem, however, may have been Erdogan's foreign policy. He promised "no problems with neighbors" only to enmesh Turkey in problems with almost every neighbor. Tourism revenues plunged as first Israelis, then Russians and, after the Istanbul bombings, almost everyone else spent their holidays elsewhere.
The recent wave of terrorism may have been the last straw. Erdogan's increasing sectarianism — and his personal animosity toward both Syrian Kurds and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — led him to see radical groups inside Syria like the Nusra Front, and even the Islamic State, as useful tools. As Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Syria long ago discovered, however, blowback is real. Suicide attacks in Ankara and Istanbul convinced many Turks that the peace and security Erdogan promised them was illusionary.
Was a coup inevitable? No. But those plotting it presumably believed they were saving Turkey from an increasingly out-of-touch and ideological leadership. Erdogan promised to rule on behalf of all Turks, but increasingly he does not. He promised to repair the economy, but corruption is rife, the currency shaky, and a recession could be on the horizon. He promised peace, but his combative policies isolated Turkey in the Middle East and estranged it from the West. He promised security, but Turks fear recent bombings are just the tip of the iceberg. At the same time, the coup plotters may believe that Erdogan's continual consolidation of power made this their last chance.
Whether Erdogan remains in power or not, there's a cautionary tale here. All leaders risk being trapped in a bubble of sycophancy. A free press enables leaders the ability to cut through flattery and calibrate policy to reality. Erdogan, however, lost not only that window to Turkey, but also to the world. Now comes the real danger, however. Should the coup succeed, Turkey will remain divided with no obvious leader to bridge the gap. But should Erdogan survive the coup, his gut reactions may be to accelerate his crackdown and to believe in conspiracies of all sorts — not only those grounded in reality, but also the many that live only in his own florid imagination.