Predicted Turkish coup unlikely

Two men in trousers and shirts play beach volleyball with two women in Islamic-style attire and headscarves. Other men with black moustaches and beards appear in Islamic-style bathing suits that stretch below the ankles. Such were the pictures from this weekend’s brainstorming meeting of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) at a five-star holiday resort on the Mediterranean coast. Ironically, at the gathering the AK leadership pledged to distance itself further from its Islamist roots and to tailor for itself a conservative/democratic identity. It was only coincidental that the manifesto for a new political line came a few days after a leading British think tank warned that tensions between the government and the staunchly secularist military could culminate in a coup. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in its annual survey predicted that the AK might in future be tempted to take radical Islamist steps to the military’s discontent. That could, according to the IISS, lead to military coups such as those of 1960, 1971 and 1980. It is no secret that the power-sharing arrangement between the government and the military is based on contempt rather than content. All the same the IISS survey is too premature in its conclusions and hardly consistent with «Turkish realism,» for a number of reasons: 1. The AK is not a monolithic political grouping. Instead, it includes people from different ideologies including liberals, nationalists and conservatives. The Islamists, too, are fractured; some are genuine hardliners while others advocate a milder line. Although the party leadership consists of people with quite radical Islamist pasts, several Cabinet seats (including those for interior affairs, justice and defense) are held by conservatives. 2. The AK is still searching for a political identity. Although its leaders may have a hidden agenda for political Islam, such ambitions are not their priority. They are rather testing the waters, taking a controversial step, gauging the reaction from the secularist establishment and then continuing or – more usually – backing off. 3. The AK’s survival strategy is based on avoiding open confrontation with the military. That, and the non-Islamist elements in the party, may in the future further push it toward center-right politics. 4. After years of fruitless struggle for political Islam, the AK leader (and prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a pragmatist; he is a shrewd man, certainly not a loose cannon. As such, he should be more concerned about his own survival than about a bunch of radicals. He is able to calculate that he could win another term, or perhaps two, if he opts for milder politics and ensures that the poor masses who voted for him last November are better off economically. He knows that he did not win one third of the vote on political grounds but on the accumulated economic failures of his predecessors. 5. The Turkish military is not what it was in the 1960s and the 1970s. Although its ambitions to keep Turkey a secular republic have remained unchanged, its concept of fighting whatever it perceives as a threat to these ambitions has become a kind of postmodernism. The memories of the Turks waking up to radio messages announcing military takeovers are just too distant. 6. The dominant military mindset is to tolerate the AK’s governance as long as the party does not cross the military’s clear red lines. 7. The secular regime could use more subtle methods than a takeover if it wanted to get rid of a government it regards as a threat. If, therefore, the AK goes for the radical option, it is less likely to face the risk of a conventional coup than a series of purely political incidents, possibly spearheaded by the establishment, that will split the party along ideological lines as well as personalities (there are in the AK two other potential leaders, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc, with quite substantial support from various groupings of party members). It is worth noting that Mr Erdogan’s former party boss and Turkey’s first Islamist premier, Necmettin Erbakan, lost power six years ago after several deputies from his coalition partners defected to rival parties, leaving his government with a parliamentary minority in a matter of weeks. It was not a coincidence that the military, in a communiqué it released a few weeks earlier, had said it would continue to defend the secular regime «through democratic means.» Mr Erdogan knew on the day he came to power that he would be walking a tightrope. «We are aware that we cannot rule this country by a simple arithmetical majority,» he had said. He was right. After six months in office, he must now choose between what his mind and heart dictate. Despite the scenes of beach volleyball and swimming at the weekend, he appears inclined to follow his mind. All the same, it should not be any surprise if his appearing so is a ruse to allow him to discreetly follow his «instincts.»