The coup attempt in Turkey is the latest flashpoint in the often tense relationship between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the country's military. Historically the Turkish military held considerable sway over politics. It's a popular institution with relative autonomy, which poses itself as a guardian of Kemalism, the country's founding ideology, and secularism. The rise of Mr. Erdogan to power in 2002 had challenged the military both ideologically and institutionally. In terms of ideology, Mr. Erdogan's AK Party's Islamist politics was fundamentally different from the military's Kemalist secularism. Mr. Erdogan's government also took a series of steps in its initial years such as limiting the jurisdiction of the military court and bringing the appointment of senior military figures under civilian control to weaken the military's influence in society and over state.
This was a formidable challenge given that the military had staged four successful coups in the past and made several other political leaders resign through other means. But his immense popularity and economic and political stability helped Mr. Erdogan take the risk which other Turkish politicians feared to do. He had also got several generals and other senior commanders arrested for allegedly trying to plot against the government. Despite the public opposition and warning from the military, the government supported the election of Abdullah Gul as the country's president in 2007. The military opposed Mr. Gul because of his previous association with an Islamist party. At this moment, Mr. Erdogan appeared to have tamed the strong military and established the authority of his civilian government over the whole of Turkish institutions.
But things have changed over the last two years. The paradigm shift in Turkey's foreign policy and its disastrous outcome, growing insecurity in the country, and the increasingly authoritarian nature of the AK Party rule all weakened Mr. Erdogan's once enviable political stature. When crisis broke out in Syria in 2011, Mr.Erdogan was one of the first leaders who called for President Bashar al-Assad's resignation. Since then he actively backed Islamist rebels in Syria. This was largely counterproductive. First, it deepened the Syrian civil war, sending a huge number of refugees into Turkey. Second, the hands of Islamic State were strengthened by the Syrian conflict. The IS is now occasionally attacking Turkey. Third, Turkey's involvement in Syria had turned Russia against the country. The Russian sanctions had seriously impacted the country's Central Asia plans. Lastly, the worsening of the ethnic tensions within Turkey is also linked to the Syrian crisis. Mr. Erdogan resumed attacking the Kurdish rebels in the country's Southeast after Kurds emerged as a major ground force in the war against IS, drew international support and their political wing posed electoral challenges to the AK Party.
Of late, however, Mr. Erdogan had tried to improve relationship with the military establishment. That may be because his government became increasingly reliant on the military in the wake of the new security challenges, particularly in the East. Mr. Erdogan focussed his opposition on the Gulenist wing of the military--followers of Islamist scholar and an Erdogan critic Fethullah Gulen--and aligned with the Kemalists. Mr. Erdogan calls the Gulenist wing a "parallel structure" within the government. In recent weeks, the government had also shown changes in its foreign policy. Mr. Erdogan met President Vladimir Putin of Russia and normalised Turkey's ties with Israel. The government had also said that it was ready to engage Syrian President Assad, in a major U-turn in its hostile approach towards the neighbouring country.
Besides, earlier this week, Mr. Erdogan signed a bill giving soldiers immunity from prosecution while taking part in domestic security operations.
But Saturday's coup attempt shows that Mr. Erdogan hasn't won completely in pacifying the discontents within the army. His initial response was that the "parallel structure" was behind the coup. But the question is whether the Gulenists are so powerful, even after the purge, to stage a coup against the Turkish government. It could also be a larger military revolt given that Mr. Erdogan is now weak and is dependent on the armed forces. The statement issued by the rebel forces that they have taken over the country to protect human rights and secularism matches the Kemalist rhetoric. Either way, it shows the further weakening of The Turkish state and portrays a grim picture about the future of the country's democracy.