A Coup in Turkey and the Fight for Democracy

As a life-long devotee of the country, it was with some regret that I chose to call my forthcoming book A Coup in Turkey – in the manner of a news headline, as if coups are to Turkey what school shootings are to the US, missile tests to North Korea and farmers’ strikes to France.

Which, not least after the events of July 2016, they sadly are.

For much of the time that I have written about Turkey, in a number of books and hundreds of travel articles published over three decades, I have focussed almost exclusively on this astonishing country’s overwhelmingly positive aspects.  Throughout those years I have often found myself on the defensive, battling competing visions – of tanks on the streets, of curfews and detentions – in a bid to advance the best of the place, not least its outstanding cultural, culinary and scenic draws, not to mention the winning ease and generosity of the people: in evoking a place, in short, that people might take pleasure in (re-)discovering.

If the book marks a major change in direction, by a writer Turks will know if at all for his holiday copy, I hope it is nevertheless viewed as the act of a friend.  In telling of Turkey’s first coup, of 27 May 1960, I hope to have established just how disastrous that intervention was in sowing deep and lasting lines of division: divisions which led to a long sequence of coups and failed coups, as recently as 15 July 2016, the failure of which the Erdoğan regime is sure to commemorate on the bungled attempt’s fifth anniversary this summer.  Just as it will also mark the 60th anniversary of Menderes’s execution on 17 September 1961, the one event which above all others outraged the many followers of this democratically elected, if increasingly authoritarian, long-serving prime minister.

When Menderes came to power in 1950, in the country’s first fully free elections, his constituency included many, not least among the devout rural populace, who had never embraced the radical secularism of the great Atatürk’s vision; they rejoiced when Menderes’s first act in office was to reverse a ruling which forbade the ezan, the call to prayer, to be made in the traditional Arabic.    He did this, I like to think, because he understood his democratic role was to serve the will of his supporters; not, as his enemies allege, because he meant to drag his country back into a reactionary Ottoman-style twilight that would serve his own autocratic ambitions.  Therein, of course, the blurring inevitably lies.

In his decade in power Menderes did a great deal that was injudicious if not wrong, not least in pursuing a cynical populism, presenting himself as the saviour of a people ill-served by their leaders – like Trump, if you will, and with comparable doses of hyper-sensitivity and vindictiveness, but with considerably more charm, courtesy and charisma.  The putschists of 1960 claimed that they intervened in the name of democracy; but in refusing to let the democratic process run its course, in trampling on Menderes’s reputation and then murdering him, they in fact did enormous and lasting damage to their country.

The wonder is that Turkey’s young democracy has survived, as the overwhelming public rejection of the 2016 coup attempt demonstrated.  The people would make up their own minds as to who ruled them, which the all-important Istanbul mayoral elections of 2019 further demonstrated, this time in resisting the ambitions not of Erdoğan’s enemies in the military but of his own ruling party, which annulled the popular result when the decision went narrowly against it – only for the opposition candidate to be returned with a much-increased majority when the elections were re-run.

It may be, given its history and traditions, that Turkey will always be prey to authoritarian currents, but these recent events have persuaded me that in the long run the tide of democracy will carry the day.  I have high hopes for a brighter future.

A Coup in Turkey: A Tale of Democracy, Despotism and Vengeance in a Divided Land by Jeremy Seal, is published 4 February.   For a copy, and to support independent bookshops, order here.