An abortive coup

Published July 17, 2016

TURKEY may have entered a turbulent and uncertain phase in its history, but until the events of this weekend there had appeared to be at least one certainty: the military had been returned to the barracks and the threat of a coup permanently eroded. The chaotic events of Friday evening, however, suggest that there are sizeable elements inside Turkey’s military that still do not accept the constitutional authority of a legitimately elected government and that continue to believe it is their duty to protect the state from the people’s elected representatives. If that threatened to create further instability in a country and region already convulsed by wars, terrorist violence and frightening sectarian rivalries, the response of the Turkish people, the full spectrum of its political class and the civilian apparatus of the state has been nothing short of historic. It was remarkable to witness a nation and polity divided come together immediately in defence of its democratic process — the need to defend the representative system being of more fundamental importance than any partisan view of a particular government.

The Turkish people and their political leaders have acted in a manner inspirational for many countries struggling with their own anti-democratic forces, but is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan willing to show the necessary humility and flexibility to protect the democracy that he is chief custodian of? A purge within the military may be inevitable and necessary, but there is more than a whiff of political machinations in the Turkish president’s accusations against former ally and moderate cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Mr Erdogan has a reputation for seeing enemies everywhere and his authoritarian approach to ruling seems to only exacerbate his problems. Clearly, the people of Turkey want Mr Erdogan as their leader; surely there’s no reason for him to constantly alienate and antagonise his colleagues and create unnecessary problems for the country. Moreover, the Turkish president often uses the very democratic process that has conferred on him popular legitimacy for undemocratic ends. In fact, Mr Erdogan’s net contribution to democratic institution-building frequently appears to be in the negative.

Here in Pakistan, the failed coup in Turkey has some important lessons for the military leadership. With some sections of the public, media and the political class criticising the elected government, its governance record and some of its policy choices, there may be a temptation to justify decreasing the political and governance space of the incumbent PML-N — or even to contemplate the unthinkable and return Pakistan to the dark days of military rule. But such short-term thinking is precisely what contributes to long-term governance malaise. Pakistan is a constitutional democracy for a reason: it is the only path towards finding sustainable and lasting improvements in the quality of governance. First principles must never be compromised in the quest for ill-conceived fixes.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2016

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