The AK Party in Turkey: in government, and at last in power

In this analysis of events in Turkey over the last days Dennis Sammut assesses the mood of a nation torn by mixed emotions, as the dust of the failed coup settles down. Dennis Sammut is Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) and Managing Editor of

Two weeks have passed since the failed military coup in Turkey, and the dust of the tanks on the streets of Istanbul, and the bombs dropped on Parliament and the government buildings in Ankara has hardly settled. Yet it is already possible to say that 15 July was a defining moment in modern Turkish history, and that things in Turkey will never be the same again.

The coup involved large chunks of the Turkish military but was not triggered by the military high command. Reports from official military sources suggest that besides nearly 9,000 soldiers, (mostly privates and NCOs who were just obeying orders), 24 fighter jets, 37 helicopters, 74 tanks, 246 armoured vehicles, three warships and nearly 4,000 light weapons were used in the coup.

Talk of military coups are common in Turkey. When I was living in Ankara a decade ago intellectuals and ordinary people talked openly of the pros and cons of a military coup to stem the rise of the then budding, but still unsecure Islamist inspired AK party government. Most sensible people, including the military high command it seems, dismissed this talk as useless prattle. Turkey was on a different path, and military coups were a thing of the past.

Not everyone thought so it seems. Although badly executed, the 15 July coup had been under planning for a long time. There is now enough evidence to suggest that those who executed it were middle ranking officers who had moved faster the chain of command due to a previous purge of the military, based it later transpired, on false information. And what gelled the group together was an association with Turkey's famous, now infamous, Hizmet movement led by the Islamic scholar in exile, Fettulah Gulen. The government argues that Gulen himself was the mastermind of the coup, although some argue that he may only have been a symbol around which others gathered and plotted.

I have no sympathy for the putschists. Turkey has suffered enough in the last six decades from military takeovers, and another one would have done untold harm to the country and its people. Furthermore, the way the putschists executed the coup can be a sign of how they intended to rule, riding roughshod over the Turkish people. If this coup had succeeded it would have made Pinochet's junta in Chile look like a tea party. Of course the young soldiers, some conscripts who were simply obeying orders, are not to blame. But those who ordered them to shoot civilians and attack the country's institutions deserve all the punishment that the law allows.

As expected, the consequences of this misadventure on Turkey are profound. First, it is possible to say that there has been a silver lining. The coup failed because the most senior members of the military high command did not join it, but foremost because the Turkish people in their huge majority opposed it, and were ready to risk their lives doing so. It also failed because the Turkish political elite, including the leadership of all four parties represented in parliament, resolutely opposed it early on, and when it mattered.  The government, correctly, is grateful. In the highly polorised Turkish political landscape this political unity was no mean feat.

In the aftermath, as can be expected, things have happened over the last two weeks that some, myself included, find distasteful. Government and people want revenge. So far the government has by and large responded within the provisions of the law, but opposition leaders have warned of the danger of witch-hunts. The next weeks will test President Erdogan and his government.

The collapse of the coup was a defining psychological moment. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in government since November 2002. In most countries fourteen years in government is a long time, yet it seems that for most AKP supporters, the party only came to power on 15 July 2016. Up to that point there was a lingering awe and fear of the military. That awe and fear has now gone.

Over the last days I mingled with crowds in Turkish cities as they held round the clock vigils and manifestations in support of their countries institutions. On Istanbul's Taksim square, and nearby Istiqlal Caddesi - traditional blending pot where Turkey's diversity is constantly on show - AK party supporters shouted Allah u Akbar, waved flags, and promised everlasting loyalty to President Recip Tayip Erdogan. In the bars, restaurants and watering holes around, the mood was more sombre, one of apprehension of what is to come.

The situation was very different in Kayseri, traditional AK Party heartland in central Anatolia, where last Sunday, tens of thousands turned out in a show of support for their party and president. Here the mood was much more jubiliant. As I mingled with the crowd, of which many were women, the mood was not one of fear, but rather of hope. Their party was now finally in power.

For the Turkish political elite there are now hard decisions ahead. There has already been a purge of the military, the education institutions, the media, and the government bureaucracy. Thousands have been dismissed from their jobs. The connection of many of those dismissed with the coup itself is probably very tenuous. There is then the business of putting the putschists on trail, with some questioning if in the present climate, fair trails are possible.

Whilst by and large most Turks agree with these moves, the lingering fear is whether or not President Erdogan will use the moment to undermine Turkey's secular identity and democratic foundations.

Erdogan is a shrewd politician who mastered the art of timing. He has used the euphoria of the last days to strengthen his position, and will milk the moment to the full. When that is done however he will know when to stop. This is partly because he knows that his party is not a monolithic institution, but a broad popular movement. Going forward he will need the support of both the Party and the wider society. So whilst clamping down severely on the Gulenists, Erdogan has in the last days offered an olive branch to the mainstream opposition - the secular CHP and the nationalist MHP. He has not yet gone so far as to do the same to the pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, but there are some signs that he may even be ready to do that. He has also shown a willingness to work more closely with those elements of the armed forces that remained loyal.

Turkey now desperately needs a period of national reconciliation and unity. Erdogan needs to show statesmanship more than macho populism. 15 July may yet turn out to be the moment Turkey's democracy matured and came into its own. The risk that it may usher a dark chapter in Turkey's history however, remains.

The west needs to be carefully how to engage with Turkey at this moment. Solidarity is more essential than patronising lecturing. Yet Turkey also needs to be told that there are red lines that if crossed will have consequences. Talk of bringing back the death penalty for example, deserved the categoric response that it got from EU officials over the last days. Yet Turkey is a trusted NATO ally and an EU candidate member country. There is little to be gained by chastising Turkey, but it is necessary to work with it to help it overcome its present difficulties.

Dennis Sammut is Director of LINKS (Dialogue, Analysis and Research) and Managing Editor of commonspace.euHe may be contacted at

Photo: A woman takes to the streets to support the AK Party government after a failed military coup. Many of those demonstrating on the streets of Turkey in the last days have been women.

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