Friday evening’s news of a coup attempt in Turkey has stunned the world. Almost nobody thought the Turkish military, or at least part of it, would attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and yet, it’s happening.
With such surprising news unfolding, and confusing and often conflicting information coming in real time, it can be hard to understand what’s really happening. That’s true on a factual level, which is why we're sorting through the latest developments over on our "what we know" post.
But it’s also true on an interpretive level: When you hear news like "Erdogan’s whereabouts are unknown," it might not be clear exactly what that tells you about the situation. Information without context isn’t that helpful, especially if you aren’t an expert on coups or Turkey.
So what follows is a quick list of the core things that matter in a situation like this, and how that should guide the way you interpret what you hear out of Turkey. Think of it is a sort of checklist for what’s important to watch for in Turkey right now.
- Do the coup leaders control the whole military? Right now in Turkey, this is unclear: The coup leaders claim to represent the entire armed forces, but Erdogan says they’re a minority of the military. While this is unclear, it is the key question: Coups succeed when the military is united and fail when there are sharp divisions.
- What are Turkish military elites saying? According to political scientist Naunihal Singh, the most important determinant of uniting the military is whether other soldiers thinks the coup is going to succeed. If the coup leaders successfully make it seem that the government’s collapse is inevitable and that all resistance is futile, then the rest of the military tends to take their side. So if people in Turkey’s military leadership start recognizing the coup or speaking out against it, that tells you a lot about the likelihood of unifying the military and thus success.
- Who controls the Turkish media? Singh’s research finds that control of media institutions helps coup leaders consolidate power, as it helps them get out the message that their coup is inevitably going to succeed. So whether the largest broadcasting agencies in Turkey are controlled by coup sympathizers or government sympathizers is really important, and worth watching for.
- How big are the public demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara, and whose side are they on? Popular demonstrations can play an important role in shaping the direction of coups — in part, according to some research, by signaling to elites whether a coup would enjoy public support after happening. So it matters whether the protestors in Turkey’s main cities are mostly pro- or anti-coup. It also matters how many of them there are — the bigger the demonstrations, the stronger their influence.
- Is Erdogan in the country? Nobody really knows where President Erdogan is — he was on vacation when the coup began, and his public statement was delivered on a phone via Skype. Most reports say he’s on a plane, trying to land somewhere. If he can’t land in the country, that’s a very bad sign for him — it illustrates Erdogan sympathizers don’t have a strong presence at a major public institution: airports.
- Are there widespread reports of shots being fired between armed factions? The scariest possibility in any coup is outright and large-scale combat between opposing military factions. There have been multiple reports of explosions and gunfire in Ankara and Istanbul; if these reports intensify, things could get very bad.