While everyone was puzzling through the who, what, and how of the coup-non-coup family drama in Jordan, it was yet another wild week in Turkish politics. On April 3, around the same time as Prince Hamzah was allegedly plotting against his half-brother King Abdullah II in Amman, 104 retired Turkish admirals released a letter expressing concern that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government apparent proposal to pull Turkey out of the Montreux Convention, which grants Turkey the right to regulate access to the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits. The letter also raised alarms over what the naval officers regard as the Islamization of the armed forces.
This is a big deal; there have been coups in Turkey over less. Yet it is entirely unclear what the admirals intended. Perhaps they sought to activate like-minded officers who remain in the ranks. If so, the letter was the first step in the long-awaited showdown between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and secularist-nationalist officers who have disposed of their common enemies—their NATO-friendly colleagues and followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen. Perhaps it was just a group of retired admirals upset over the changes Erdogan and his party have wrought over the last 19 years who finally felt the need to unburden themselves. Perhaps it was a setup.
Whatever the admirals were hoping to achieve, their missive has worked in the Turkish president's favor. In the days since the letter appeared in the wee hours of the morning on an obscure, ultranationalist news site called Veryansintv.com, Erdogan, his advisors, and their media toadies have declared, "Coup!" Given the government's unrivaled ability to frame the public narrative, this odd episode may be remembered as an attempted putsch. It may also be remembered as the moment when Erdogan, at least in domestic politics, got his groove back.
The letter capped off what has been a tumultuous few months in Turkey, most triggered by Erdogan. It comes after the protests that rocked Bogazici University; Ankara's withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention; yet another change at the top of the Turkish Central Bank; a case filed at the Constitutional Court to close the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP); the conviction of that party's leader for insulting Erdogan; and the arrest of another high-profile member of the HDP. Throughout the chaos, Turks have had to contend with a deteriorating economy coupled with the uncertainty of the pandemic and rising cases of COVID-19.
Although the calendar says April 2021, Erdogan—a careful and paranoid politician—is fixated on 2023, when Turkey's next presidential and general elections are scheduled to be held. There is an added urgency to this upcoming cycle for the Turkish leader, as recent polls show support for him and his party softening, though they are still able to garner the most votes. As a result, Erdogan has hit on several hot-button issues recently in an effort to shore up the political support he already enjoys, while maneuvering to improve his chances of victory and an AKP parliamentary majority in the upcoming elections.
The protests at Bogazici—an internationally regarded university—began when Erdogan appointed an unqualified political hack and accused plagiarizer named Melih Bulu to be the school's rector. In response to the demonstrations, the government employed riot police and blamed the university's LGBTQI club for the protests. This was gross bigotry playing to the gross bigotry of religiously conservative voters. Yet, it was not the only time in recent weeks that Erdogan and his minions trafficked in homophobia. When Turkey pulled out of the Istanbul Convention on March 21, the Turkish president defended the move, declaring that the agreement has been hijacked by groups intent to "normalize homosexuality, which is incompatible with Turkey's social and family values." This was the AKP turning on itself in the search for votes from reactionaries. It was only a decade ago that Erdogan oversaw the signing of the convention—thus its unofficial name—with great fanfare. Although he was already well down the road of authoritarianism at the time, Erdogan remained interested in projecting an image of the AKP and Turkey as forward-thinking and progressive.
The day before leaving the Istanbul Convention, Erdogan sacked the governor of the Central Bank, Naci Agbal, who had only been in the job since November 2020. Agbal's transgression was to hike interest rates in a reflection of sane monetary policy. Until Agbal took over, Turkey had lurched from one lira crisis to another over the last three years. In his place, Erdogan installed Sahap Kavcioglu, a former AKP legislator, manager at the state-controlled Halkbank, and, most recently, a writer for the very pro-Erdogan daily Yeni Safak, where he wrote columns arguing—like the Turkish president—that raising interest rates causes inflation. It seems clear that Erdogan looked at the calendar and decided that his politics dictated an unorthodox approach, even with its attendant inflationary effects and long-term damage, as opposed to a policy that would have inflicted pain on an overextended middle class and business community associated with higher interest rates.
Then there is the plight of the HDP. Next to the Gulenists, the party is Erdogan's biggest bugaboo. That is because, even though it is routinely described in the press as "Kurdish-based," the party has a broader appeal. In the June 2015 general elections, the HDP garnered 13 percent of the popular vote, which was enough to get into parliament (the threshold is 10 percent) and deny the AKP a parliamentary majority. That is why Erdogan sabotaged coalition government talks that summer, forcing a rerun election in which he was able to reverse the AKP's losses. Since then, Erdogan has sought to decapitate the HDP, accusing its leadership of colluding with the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Selahattin Demirtas, an HDP co-founder and presidential candidate, has been in jail since 2016 on terrorism charges and was recently found guilty and sentenced to more prison time for insulting Erdogan. Another high-profile party leader and member of parliament, Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, was recently stripped of his immunity in March and arrested for sharing and commenting on a tweet in 2016 that called on the Turkish government to restart peace talks with the PKK.
Clearly, the Turkish leader is worried about the HDP and its ability to draw enough votes to once again deny the AKP a parliamentary majority in 2023. The executive presidency that Erdogan engineered through constitutional amendments in 2017 only works in the way he desires—unchecked—if the president shares party membership with the Grand National Assembly's majority party. It is hardly a coincidence that in recent weeks Turkish prosecutors filed a case with the Constitutional Court to close the party on the grounds that it supports terrorism. The court sent it back, citing technical problems, but that probably will not end the case. The ironies here are almost too much to take. The AKP is the successor to a series of parties that were closed and whose leaders were banned and jailed. That is why, shortly after the AKP came to power, it implemented reforms to make it harder for the authorities to shutter parties they do not like. That was then.
It is hard to judge what might happen when elections are still about two years away, but it seems clear that Erdogan has been looking for every possible advantage wherever he can get it. The polls suggest it was not working––and then, like a gift from God, some retired admirals wrote a letter that caused a political row given who they are and the issues that concerned them. The political discourse in Turkey will now surely revolve around a politically potent dichotomy: You are either with Erdogan, or you are with coup plotters.
Erdogan has long been successful at turning the tables on his opponents. The Ergenekon plotters were jailed, Abdullah Gul became president despite the military's efforts to block him, and Gulenists are on the run. Perhaps the admirals' letter will be another one of these affairs that gives Erdogan a political boost even as his and the AKP's rule decays and deteriorates further into coercion and corruption, proving, as the old saying goes, it is better to be lucky than good.
Steven A Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.