The AKP’s Hegemonic Crisis

Erdoğan has unleashed a massive purge in the wake of last month's attempted coup. But he's weaker than he appears.

A month after an attempted coup — and amid a still-ongoing countercoup aimed at radically restructuring the state apparatuses — uncertainty and ambiguity still prevail in Turkey.

However, this much is clear: the abortive putsch has caused a rupture, initiating a new period of unpredictability and repression, and making possible additional breaks with the status quo.

During the two days of violent clashes, 104 putschists, and 246 police, soldiers, and civilians fighting the coup attempt were killed, and over 1,500 people were wounded.

After the coup’s defeat, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed Fethullah Gülen — the former imam and former Erdoğan ally who has been residing in Pennsylvania since 1999 — for masterminding the coup. In the weeks since, the president has launched an unprecedented wave of purges.

Erdoğan’s Backlash

Already on the night of the abortive coup Erdoğan called it a “blessing of God,” seeing it as an opportunity to attack the Gülenist opposition. In the immediate aftermath of the failed attempt, 1,684 members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were dismissed due to alleged connections to the Gülen movement.

The purge operation also spread to a wide range of other public and private institutions.

Around fifty thousand people have been suspended or removed from their jobs, including thousands of police officers, judges, prosecutors, and teachers. More than fifteen thousand have been detained, a couple of thousand of whom were arrested. Even though the bulk of the purges seem to be over, these figures continue to creep upwards.

On July 20, Erdoğan announced a three-month state of emergency in order to “remove” all the “viruses” entrenched in positions of power. The next day, his government suspended the European Convention on Human Rights, raising the pre-charge detention limit from four to thirty days (and therefore making it easier to mistreat detainees during custody period). Various human rights organizations — corroborated by hundreds of pictures and videos on social media — have complained that those detained are being denied water, food, and medical care, and subjected to beatings and torture, including rape. In addition, all independent human rights monitors have been prohibited from accessing Turkish detention facilities.

As a result of the state of emergency legislation, 131 media outlets have been shut down, including forty-five newspapers, sixteen news channels, and three news agencies. Around one hundred arrest warrants have been issued for journalists. And more than one thousand private schools and educational institutions have been closed.

On July 28, following the firing of nearly half the TSK’s generals and admirals, the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), flanked by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, announced that the command echelon of the Turkish Armed Forces would remain intact and that the chief of general staff would remain in his posit.

But the most recent statutory decree, enacted on July 31, expelled another 1,389 military personnel from the army, including former aides to Erdoğan and the chief of general staff. Furthermore, all war academies and military high schools were closed, to be replaced by the National Defense University.

Government officials and mainstream media assure the public that these operations are only targeting the Gülen movement, the supposed source of all evil. But while most of those arrested or suspended have been Gülenists — or (sometimes very loosely) connected to the Gülen movement — there are good reasons to believe the coup plotters were not all Gülenists.

A Betrayal in the Alliance?

Some of the arrested commanders — such as the commander of the Second Army, Adem Huduti — are well known for their distance from, and struggle against, the Gülen movement. Similarly, one of the major generals involved in the coup attempt, Gökhan Şahin Sönmezateş, denied having anything to do with Gülenists, even after confessing that he was a plotter and stating he is ready to be executed.

Facts like these indicate the driving force behind the coup attempt might have been an alliance that included the Gülen movement but was not comprised entirely of Gülenists.

Such evidence is not limited to the testimonies of detainees.

Four days after the coup, the TSK released a statement declaring the Gülen movement an illegal, terroristic, and traitorous entity solely responsible for the attempt. However, the very same statement acknowledged that the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) informed the chief of the general staff, commander of the land forces, and deputy chief of the general staff about an expected putsch around 4 PM that day.

It is striking, then, that the commander of air forces and many other generals still went to a wedding in Istanbul, where the putschists ultimately took them hostage. Or that the chief of the general staff took no precautionary measures after meeting with the MIT, only to be held hostage a half hour after the coup started. Even more astonishing: although the head of the MIT was made aware in the afternoon of the impending coup, both the president and the prime minister have said they only found out about the coup when it was already underway (Erdogan from his brother-in-law, Yıldırım from family and friends).

Another source of confusion is the testimonies of the soldiers involved in the assassination unit against Erdoğan, who was in Marmaris (a port town and tourist resort on the Mediterranean coast) for vacation. It has been claimed that Erdoğan’s now-arrested aide-de-camp was supposed to inform the assassination team about the president’s location.

If Erdoğan is to be believed, he narrowly escaped with his life — fifteen minutes later and he would have been killed. Yet at around 4:30 PM that day, Sözcü, an ultra-nationalist and Kemalist newspaper published a news piece revealing where the president was staying. Between 10 and 10:30, it became clear to the public that a coup had been launched, whereas Erdoğan connected to CnnTürk at 12:26 via FaceTime.

According to the testimonies of the now-captured soldiers of the assassination team, they were informed that the operation was to start around 1 or 1:30 AM. They set off as late as 2:30, and got to at Erdoğan’s hotel around 3:30. In the meantime, Erdoğan had already arrived in Istanbul; he was speaking at Atatürk Airport by 3:20. Sönmezateş — the general who admitted involvement in the coup but denied any connection to Gülen — has expressed suspicion that a high authority intentionally waylaid the assassination team, an additional indication of an internal rift within a potential alliance.

Last but not least, we know the plotters had to act in the evening rather than at the planned time (3 AM) because the coup attempt had been detected by the MIT. However, this deviation cannot account for the significant lack of initiative on the part of the plotters in almost every city but Istanbul and Ankara. It is very likely that other factions in the army that were supposed to take action in other parts of the country either cheated on the plan or wavered and took a “wait and see” approach.

It is difficult to say whether the president and prime minister really didn’t know about the coup in advance. It is also possible that the government, or other state institutions such as the MIT, convinced some factions of the putschist bloc to step back and support the government. Even if many generals did not give up immediately, this might have weakened the attempt fatally.

This may also partly explain why the vast majority of high-ranking generals and commanders remained silent for at least a couple hours after the plotters sprung into action, and why they acted very slowly even after they declared loyalty to the elected government. Alternatively, perhaps Erdoğan, the MIT, and/or the prime minister allowed the coup attempt to be carried out, confident it would fail and could then be used to deal a comprehensive blow to the Gülenist and other intra-state opposition.

In any case, the most likely scenario is that an anti-Erdoğan alliance led by Gülenists was responsible for the coup, and that many generals and military units initially stood on the sidelines to see how events would progress.

The would-be coup revealed again the depth of the AKP’s hegemonic crisis. Now, with some elements of the coup alliance still present in the army and other state institutions, Erdoğan will have to construct his own coalition to counter the instability of the present order.

The International Dimension

In the weeks since the coup attempt, tension between Turkey, on the one hand, and the US and EU, on the other, has been mounting.

The first statement the US government released came in the early hours of the putsch, with fates yet to be decided. Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped for “stability and peace.” Only after the coup was almost totally defeated did the US government declare its support for the civilian government.

This temporizing has not gone unnoticed. Erdoğan and Yıldırım have demanded that the US extradite Gülen, diplomatically suggesting that if the US declines to do so it would be supporting an organization top-listed in Turkey’s terror list and would weaken the strategic partnership between the two countries.

Other AKP officials have been more blunt, attacking the US government as the ultimate orchestrator of the coup, and pro-Erdoğan media and opinion leaders are propagating the theory that Washington is directly responsible for the events of July 15.

The idea that the West keeps trying to create economic, political, and military chaos in order to redesign the Middle East resonates with parts of both the Left and Right in Turkey.

For the Right, Turkey is destined to become a regional (if not world) power under Erdoğan’s leadership, and the Gezi Uprising, corruption scandals, and the coup attempt are all the work of the “West.”

While these are conspiracy theories, the major imperialist powers are indeed concerned about Turkey. The country has become increasingly destabilized since 2013, endangering foreign capital investment. Even more important is the foreign policy dimension: Turkey has repeatedly pushed for adventurist options concerning Syria and Russia, sparking international crises and prompting NATO to distance itself from the country. The US in particular has an interest in seeing the establishment of a government — whether it’s led by the AKP or another party or alliance — that can rebuild a stable consensus for capitalist hegemony and carry out a foreign policy more in accord with NATO positions.

Erdoğan, for his part, has recently sharpened his tone against the US. After US director of national intelligence James Clapper and US central command general Joe Votel complained that the purges in the Turkish military were adversely affecting the fight against the Islamic State, Erdoğan warned Votel he had to know his place, and accused him of standing with the putschists instead of thanking the Turkish government for thwarting the coup attempt.

The US, of course, has a long and sordid history of intervening in other countries’ affairs, including through military coups. Staunch denials of involvement notwithstanding, we likely won’t know for some time what role the US played in the coup attempt.

One thing, however, seems certain: the disingenuous attitude of some US officials, stating that they had nothing to do with the attempted coup, or the claim of the ambassador to Turkey that he learned that something was wrong the way all of us did, when fighter jets were flying over Ankara at a low altitude, is hardly credible.

Following the coup — and after detaining the commander of İncirlik as a potential putschist — the Turkish government sent thousands of police officers to the US base in İncirlik to investigate. It seems safe to say that the question is not if the US was involved in some way, but how and to what degree.

As for Turkey’s extradition demands, they will almost certainly go unheeded — Gülen has long been an ally of US secret services not only in Turkey, but in post-Soviet Turkic countries from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. One possible alternative is an extradition to a third country, potentially Egypt, to try to mitigate tensions.

Turkey-EU relations are hardly more amicable. While at the moment neither the two entities’ “refugee deal” nor their membership talks — however formal — seem to be in jeopardy, the harsh tone of late has been remarkable.

The most strident European critic of Turkey has been Austria. Recriminations between Vienna and Ankara were particularly heated after anti-coup demonstrations dominated by Erdoğan supporters turned violent and became the focus of political debate.

Austrian chancellor Christian Kern and minister of foreign affairs Sebastian Kurz both claimed that membership talks were now a fiction and that the whole process would have to be started anew. Erdoğan himself responded, and Turkish minister of foreign affairs Mevlüt Cavusoğlu did so even more directly, accusing Kern of using the “rhetoric of the far right” and calling Austria “the capital of radical racism.”

There is certainly a domestic dimension to the Austrian government’s attack: they are trying to fend off a rising far right by moving to the right themselves. However, it is hardly imaginable that the Austrian government would have engaged in such verbal sparring without having at least consulted with the EU, particularly Germany.

With France in a state of emergency, it may well be that Austria accepted the role of bad cop and German chancellor Angela Merkel that of good cop, insisting on upholding more or less good relations and the refugee deal while at the same time increasing pressure on Ankara through other channels. Following the comments from Austria, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, declared that halting membership talks would be a political mistake, and German officials later made similar statements.

These confrontations are taking place against the backdrop of a recalibration in Turkish foreign policy that predated the coup. In May, Turkey repaired or at least improved previously strained relations with several countries — Israel, Russia, and Syria. This foreshadowed a new alliance within the Turkish state that has become more open after the coup attempt.

Erdoğan and his close circle had their backs against the wall because of failed politics at home and abroad and needed to enter into an alliance with some of their former enemies — ultra-nationalist, Eurasianist Kemalist elements within the state bureaucracy and the army, many of whom had been in prison for allegedly planning a coup and had only gotten out in 2014. The timing was no coincidence: it came directly after the first major clash with the Gülen community; the cases were blamed on Gülen loyalists in the judiciary, and Erdoğan struck a deal with his former enemies.

The balance of power in this alliance shifted as time went on. With the reopening of the war against the Kurdish national liberation movement in summer 2015, the army — and the ultra-nationalist Eurasianist Kemalist elements within it — gained more and more power vis-à-vis Erdoğan. Those ultranationalist elements are now filling the gaps left by the imprisoned generals and officers.

Notably, this bloc includes many factions with a generally anti-West, pro-Russia posture. The day after the would-be putsch, two newspapers, one from the far right, the other from the ultranationalist Kemalist bloc, published an interview with a fervent advocate of the Eurasia project and aggressive Russian expansionism that emphasized the deadlock of Turkey’s Euro-Atlantic orientation and the importance of the strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey.

While economic conditions, contradictory regional interests, and severely strained relations in recent years make a fast and all-encompassing realignment in Turkey’s foreign policy seem rather impossible in the short run, bolstering relations with Russia, Iran, and Syria will help the country regain some bargaining power against the US and EU. It might even presage a mid- to long-term shift in foreign policy strategy.

The Struggle for Hegemony

In Turkey, the historical, geographical, and, above all, politico-economic circumstances ensure there will be a continuing, pitched battle for hegemony.

The most obvious of these is the one for hegemony within the state apparatuses.

Erdoğan and the AKP have long been successful at mobilizing their social base; what they’ve lacked is qualified personnel for the administration of the state. As a result, the AKP has come to rely on certain partnerships.

At the beginning of their rule, the alliance was still rather broad, containing even liberal and former left-leaning elements — large portions of the bourgeoisie and the like. Over the course of their tenure, however, they eliminated their old enemies — hardcore Kemalists opposed to a more directly pro-US course and open neoliberal politics — and, later, their more liberal allies.

Eventually, they turned on another erstwhile ally: the Gülen community. For decades, the Gülenists had been patiently educating and placing cadres throughout the state apparatuses and the media. Now, with nearly all opposition in the state rooted out, tensions between the Erdoğan circle and the Gülen community increased, with both seeking to the upper hand. Erdoğan was nonplussed, stating publicly at the time: “We have given them everything they asked for. What more do they want?“

Things came to a head in December 2013 when the two blocs openly clashed. Since then, Gülen has been seen as an enemy of the state and his followers have been removed from important positions.

The coup sent this process into overdrive, giving Erdoğan the pretext he needed to wipe out Gülen’s followers once and for all.

But the purge has also left a huge hole in the state, preventing Erdoğan from unleashing a comprehensive assault on the opposition. Schools, for instance, can’t open yet because tens of thousands of teachers have been ousted and hundreds of schools have been shuttered. So for now at least, Erdoğan is using the state of emergency to buy time to completely remake the state apparatuses.

On one level, Erdoğan is moving to take control of the few parts of the state he doesn’t already dominate. Attempts to decrease the power of the military and increase the strength of the police are evidence of this. However, as noted, Erdoğan is still in a weakened position. He will certainly have to broker deals with other groups just to make sure the state can run.

The second struggle is over hegemony in society.

Since the coup in 1980, the political and social right — which ranges from moderate conservatives to reactionary religious groups and open fascists — has garnered at least 60 percent of the vote. Erdoğan’s great success was to unite this bloc — on the basis of a socio-ideological project that marries conservative Sunni Islam and Turkish nationalism — and build a winning electoral base.

However, the results of last June’s election — in which the AKP failed to win a super-majority — show that not everyone in Erdoğan’s base is willing to support him to the end, and that an alternative is possible.

This is even clearer now with the coup attempt.

Ever since AKP supporters rushed out onto the streets to oppose the coup attempt (many by means of organized, paramilitary mobs), AKP officials have been calling for daily demonstrations and marches in many cities, especially Istanbul and Ankara. Public transport has been free, and at the rallies water, tea, soup, bread, cheese, and much more are distributed at no cost. The idea is clearly to show strength on the street. Erdoğan’s ultimate guarantor is popular mobilization — it is what saved him the night of the coup, and it is his only chance of staying on top.

Yet after a couple days of large crowds, turnout began to steeply decline and hasn’t recovered since. In addition, left, Alevi and Kurdish neighborhoods — which were attacked in the days after the coup attempt — have not endured organized assaults of late. Both are indications of the AKP’s weakness on the streets.

In addition, the AKP, including Erdoğan himself, has been very conciliatory toward the opposition in the weeks since the abortive putsch.

Already Erdoğan had the fascist MHP and its leader, Devlet Bahçeli, under his control — part of the president’s strategy to attract large right-wing crowds after reopening his war on the Kurdish independence movement.

After July 15, Erdoğan quickly sought to expand this “national unity” tent to include the secular moderate Kemalist CHP as well. He allowed the CHP to hold a large rally in Taksim — impossible for anyone besides the AKP ever since the Gezi Uprising — and invited its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, to the presidential palace. Then on August 7 the AKP held a huge rally in Istanbul where both Bahçeli and Kılıçdaroğlu spoke, as well as leading figures of other state and ideological institutions.

Of course, the leftist, pro-Kurdish HDP has been excluded from almost all such “national unity” efforts. But Erdoğan’s obvious need for broad alliances, and his newfound moderation toward much of the domestic opposition, is a clear sign of his weakness.

In the immediate term, Erdoğan is motivated by a couple goals: one, to create a broad national alliance as tensions with the US and Europe escalate; and two, to construct a multi-party, Turkish-Sunni front against the Kurdish movement and its allies.

On the latter point, the situation in North Kurdistan can’t be far from his mind. The army is in disarray there after the failed coup attempt and the subsequent purges, a good portion of which hit high-ranking generals and soldiers in the region. In the wake of the attempted coup, the guerrilla forces of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) stopped all large-scale operations (attacks on outposts, military convoys, etc.). This was a message to the state: we know you are enfeebled, and we are ready for talks about how to proceed.

Erdoğan showed no signs of reconsidering the war in Kurdistan. Consequently, guerrilla forces stepped up the intensity and regularity of their assaults. In one particularly astonishing effort, they attacked special units of the police in Ordu and Trabzon — far outside the core region of North Kurdistan. A few rather calm days followed at the beginning of August, but guerrilla forces then went on the offensive again. It is likely the PKK will continue such tactics.

Immediately after the coup, the Kurdish movement also began pressuring the government over the safety and health of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. On the one hand, the Kurdish movement might be aware of real threats to Öcalan’s wellbeing. On the other, the political offensive for Öcalan’s freedom indicates that if the Kurdish movement is to negotiate with the state again anytime soon, it will do so from a completely different starting point.

Considering its current strength and the successes of the Kurdish forces in Syria, as well as the fact that the Turkish state is roiled in crisis, the two main demands will probably be: freedom for Öcalan and autonomous status for Kurdistan.

Where Is the Left?

How has the Left outside of Kurdistan acted in this period of tumult? All major organizations have supported a posture of double rejection, at once opposing the coup attempt and the state of emergency/Erdoğan’s rule. However, they disagree about tactics.

Attempts to build a broad democratic front of Kurds, leftists, Alevis, feminists, LGBTQ people and other oppressed people, and left forces in the CHP had been pursued before the coup, and some left organizations have been the driving forces. Yet the coup attempt showed that the Left was incapable of effectively building such a front. In the days after the coup, the Left was paralyzed, unable to put its position of “neither coup nor countercoup, but a people’s democratic alternative” into practice. This allowed the CHP to take charge and hold the aforementioned rally in Taksim, among other things.

The reason why the AKP approved of the demonstration was quite clear: first, to allow the CHP to regain the initiative; and second, to mobilize the CHP base and other more secular/democratic/left-leaning people along the lines of “anti-coup democracy,” i.e. along the lines of the current official state ideology.

However, it was also obvious that many people coming to the demonstration would be open not only to slogans like “anti-coup democracy” but also “neither coup nor countercoup — down with the AKP.” Many participants had joined the Gezi protests back in 2013 and would be receptive to alternative democratic projects.

Thus, some left organizations decided to attend with their own banners and slogans. Their aim was to drive out the AKP and prevent the CHP from filling the non-AKP anti-coup gap. And they sought to address the CHP base and other secular/democratic/left-leaning persons against the ambitions of the CHP leadership to construct a “national unity.” The CHP rally ended up being massive — between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand people — and the left/socialist organizations were positively received by the people. Meanwhile, AKP officials and members were largely driven from the demonstration.

However, many other left groups rejected this strategy. They rejected all contact with the CHP and denounced those left organizations that showed up to the CHP rally. These left groups attended only HDP rallies. Few left organizations went to both the CHP and the HDP demonstrations.

It’s apparent, then, that a left-wing push for a broad, independent democratic front against “national unity” is not viable at the moment. If the Left cannot find a common line (and effective tactics) soon, it will be in serious trouble.

Still, another is certain: the CHP’s leadership decision to cozy up to Erdoğan and essentially enter the national unity alliance has caused serious discontent in the CHP base, especially among Alevis. If they and other left-oriented people break from the party, left organizations will have an opportunity to recruit them to an alternative democratic project.

What’s to Come?

A popular argument, repeated over and over in mainstream outlets, is that Erdoğan is now stronger than ever and finally on his way to crushing all remaining opposition. Others continue to contend that Erdoğan, apparently able to bend the country to his will, was behind the coup attempt.

But the situation is much more complex. With the state weakened, international relations strained, and the economy limping, Erdoğan desperately needs to expand his coalition to stay in power.

The last few weeks have shown that Erdoğan and the AKP are feverishly pushing for a discourse and practice of “national unity” and “democracy against the coup” in order to regain ground and absolve themselves of any responsibility for the country’s mess.

Every actor in these alliances will try to improve its own position, but Erdoğan may have the upper hand. He has proven himself capable of shoring up his position, and it is unlikely the MHP or CHP have much to gain from a national alliance. On the contrary, Erdoğan will try to subordinate them to his project and effect a split in these formations (a split that has already occurred in the MHP), thus regaining control of the electoral arena.

However, the events of July 15 — as well as the fact that many generals and foreign powers moved slowly and indecisively in supporting Erdoğan and the ruling AKP — shows the AKP is in a weakened state. The ebbing crowds in recent weeks demonstrate that the party will not be not able to rely on mass mobilizations either.

If Erdoğan and the AKP overestimate their power and the momentum they’ve gained from defeating the coup — i.e. by pushing in more fascistic directions — more severe crises will follow, and Turkey might become what Syria already is.

Alternatively, if they determine their strength isn’t sufficient for a massive offensive, they will be forced to settle for a post-coup state of emergency peace, in which the power of the executive is massively strengthened but mass repression is relatively minimal (except for against Gülenists and other putschists). They will have to bide their time until they feel powerful enough to fully employ all or most of the instruments of the state of emergency.

At bottom, the AKP’s main problem is not the Gülenists, but the general instability and breakdown of the hegemonic order. If they cannot stabilize the capitalist order again, their new allies will be the ones striking and openly plotting against them. Even now, with the state and the AKP beleaguered, conditions are ripe for pushing forward.

For the Left, the urgent task is to develop a democratic counter-project to Turkish-Sunni national unity. They’ll be bolstered in such efforts by a Kurdish movement that is stronger than ever before. But if the hegemonic order stabilizes without the Left gaining ground, prospects for progressive change will become grim.

Our prediction in February that 2016 would be a decisive year for Turkey has proven to be true. But the year is not yet over, and the course of the country is still yet to be decided. That future will be forged in the political struggles to come.