clock menu more-arrow no yes

Turkey's coup: an expert tries to explain what the hell is going on

Military Occupy Strategic Locations In Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on CNN Turk via a FaceTime call in the early morning hours of July 16, 2016, in Istanbul.
Burak Kara/Getty Images

Amid news of the coup attempt in Turkey, I reached Dani Rodrik, a Turkish economist and international development expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was traveling in Spain but emailed answers to some of my (very basic) questions on the crisis. Here's our exchange.

Ezra Klein: How, as someone who doesn't follow Turkish politics closely, should I understand what's going here?

Dani Rodrik: The coup attempt is very puzzling. For one thing, it seems to have been very poorly planned. For example, most TV channels were left operating, and there does not seem to have been an attempt to take Erdogan in. And as I write this, it seemed to be collapsing.

Second, it is not clear who would benefit from a coup. The military is no longer the secularist stronghold with a strong esprit de corps and sense of mission it once was. (Hence the widespread theory in Turkey that this was a coup staged by Erdogan himself, designed to pave the way for an Erdogan dictatorship. But this doesn’t quite ring true either, in light of Erdogan’s recent attempts to mend fences with Russia and Israel to strengthen the economy. He must know that even a failed coup would wreak havoc with the economy.)

Erdogan and his allies blame the coup on a Gulenist cabal within the military. Fetullah Gulen is a US-based cleric who was once allied with Erdogan. Since their split, Erdogan has gone after Gulenists with a venom – declaring them a parallel state within the state (not too far from the truth).

We know that Gulen has a fair number of sympathizers in the military. In fact, the military may be Gulen’s last bastion of strength in Turkey, since others in the police, judiciary, media and other branches of the government have already been purged. No doubt, the government will use the coup as an opportunity to launch an even bigger attack on the Gulen movement.

The Gulen movement is certainly capable of a wide range of dirty tricks – but a coup does not seem to be their kind of thing. And besides, what did they stand to gain from such an amateurish attempt?

EK What are the causes? Is this pressure from refugees? Missteps from Erdogan? Economic unrest?

DR: None of the above really. Whatever the reason and the actors involved, it was some kind of internal power struggle relating to none of those things.

EK: Looking back, was this predictable?

DR: Erdogan has taken the country deeper into authoritarianism and aggravated ethnic and religious cleavages. I would have speculated even about a civil war – given tensions with the Kurds. But a military coup? That was totally unpredictable. At least I thought so.

EK: What do you see as the range of plausible outcomes from this point?

DR: I hope that the coup will fail. Assuming that is what happens, it will clear the way for total domination of Turkish politics by Erdogan. It will make it easier for him to make the constitutional changes he wants to make himself essentially the one and only politician deciding everything in the country.

Either way, the chances for democracy have receded even further.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.