*Originally published in Pakistan Today. Slightly edited version below:
Lenin is reported to have said, “There are decades where nothing happens—and there are weeks where decades happen.” 2016 appears to be one of these weeks. Spanning a number of events, from attacks on European soil in Belgium and France, the occurrence of Brexit, to the looming specter of a Trump presidency in the United States, this year has been marked by several waves of shock, and further ripples were added to these when Turkey dramatically foiled a coup attempt on the 15th of July.
A Dark Moment in Turkey
As news of the coup was revealed, Turkish people flooded outside to mount a challenge, in what was perhaps the most remarkable moment of the botched coup.
People poured out on the streets and roads, blocking the way of rolling tanks, pushing them back, protesting, resisting.
More than two hundred and fifty lives were ultimately lost but history is sure to record the bravery of Turkish protesters as an incredible act of tremendous courage, rendered in the name of defending democracy. Around the world, people were watching—some more intently than others.
Pakistan and Turkey both share phases of history deeply pockmarked by a series of coups and military regimes. Any upset in the civilian-military relations in Turkey thus inevitably evokes interest in Pakistan’s political and public sphere. And while one must always tread carefully and cautiously in pulling parallels between peoples, histories, countries, and events, the recent developments in Turkey do offer something for Pakistan to consider.
Turkey, Pakistan, and the Military
Turkey’s main opposition parties, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (M.H.P) have been vehemently critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan . Due to the tensions which collapsed the peace process between the AKP government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, the relationship in the case of the HDP, whose members Erdogan has previously called to “face prosecution, accusing them of being the PKK’s political wing”, has been even more strained.
Despite these tensions, it is important to note that within hours of news breaking that a coup was being attempted, all three parties strongly denounced the coup and voiced unequivocal support for the democratically-elected government of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
In contrast to Turkey, Pakistan’s political parties are known to have distributed mithais (sweetmeats) on the occasion of coups ousting rivals; a display of petty opportunism at best. Such a political attitude may be attributed to the nature of Pakistan’s political culture which has historically been stunted by decades of military dictatorship and repression; and subsequently disadvantaged by the denial of an uninterrupted, smooth, and gradual . The prospect of gains from collaboration with military governments also propelled this political expediency. However, this attitude was, appeared for the most part, on the decline following the Charter of Democracy of 2006 which was signed between the late Benazir Bhutto and now-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The CoD formed an alliance between the Pakistan’s People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to end General Musharraf’s military regime, and enshrined a collective pledge to the principle of civilian democratic rule and its restoration in Pakistan.
More recently, a maturation of political attitudes was witnessed during Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri’s PTI-PAT sit-in of 2014 in the capital. The public protest was organized by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and centered on claims of widespread rigging by Nawaz Sharif’s party in the general elections of 2013. The sit-in, which lasted from August 2014 to December 2014, was eventually joined by the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, led by Canada-based Islamic cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri. Together the parties and their gathered supporters exerted pressure upon what they called the “illegitimate” PML-N government, calling for the prime minister’s resignation and fresh polls across the country.
In wake of this sit-in, political temperatures in Pakistan rose alarmingly. However, they ended up fostering a welcome climate of political unity, solidarity, and practicality by bringing together an entire spectrum of parties under the umbrella of protecting Pakistan’s nascent democracy from imminent danger.
Similarly, the galvanization of masses in Turkey against the coup was also an answer to the surreal call given on a mobile-video app by a Facetiming Erdogan on CNN Turk for the people to take to the . While large segments of Turkish society mobilized in defense of democracy alone, the public’s support for Erdogan’s AKP – which helped it garner half of the vote in the elections of 2015 – was also clearly significant in terms of the witnessed mobilization.
Little doubt exists about Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic ambitions and his bid for greater power, evidenced by the sharp streaks of authoritarianism he has exhibited without inhibition when “running roughshod over political rivals, tossing enemies into jail and intimidating the media.” His heavy-handed tactics to repress the Taksim Square protests of also proved to be ample evidence of his shriveling sense of restraint in dealing with opposition. Erdogan’s oppressive and intolerant tendencies have been emboldened after the coup attempt; most sharply demonstrated by the recent purges, which The New York Times aptly characterizes and reveals as being of an “unprecedented scale” and comprising the dismissal of 9,000 police officers, 21,700 officials of the Ministry of Education, the forced resignations of 1,500 university deans, the suspension of 21,000 private school teachers, the detention of 10,012 soldiers and 2,745 members of the judiciary, and the shutdown of more than 100 media outlets.
So, how has Erdogan been able to consolidate power? In part, the AKP government has overseen solid economic and national development in Turkey during its tenure, while positioning itself as the representative of a large constituency in Turkey , comprising Muslims who have long felt ignored and marginalized by the secular elites and the state, and the segments of society which benefitted from the economic policies of the AKP government. But its greatest asset is the same force that allowed the government to resist the coup—the loyalty of the state police and a large contingent of the military.
It is now clear that the loyalty of the state police and a split within the Turkish military itself, with the acting chief of staff Umit Dundar against the audacious initiative to topple the government, also enabled the failure of the coup.
In her interview with Isaac Chotiner of Slate magazine, Professor Jenny White, of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, spoke about the supremacy of the military at the time of the AKP’s assumption of power in 2003 and the systematic program of defanging it by the government:
“Initially, when Erdogan came to power in 2003, the army was still all-powerful. They still had a position above the government…together with the Gülen Movement, they [the AKP] initiated a series of high-profile court cases against the generals. They put a lot of the high-ranking officers in jail. All of the heads of the different forces eventually resigned. And at that point, Erdogan reached back into the chain of command and promoted someone up. The end result of that was that the military chief of staff was loyal to Erdogan. After that there was no more uppity-ness. They were demoralized.”
Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has seen three military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999, and in the sixty-nine years of its existence, it has been subjected to three decades of military regimes. The last of these was headed by General Pervez Musharraf who resigned in 2008 succumbing to immense political and public pressure and protests which grew after his controversial imposition of emergency on 3rd November 2007 and the ensuing measures.
Pakistan has been under two different democratically-elected governments, one after the other, since 2008. Yet even as the popularity of democratically elected governments waxes and wanes, there appears to be no end in sight to the popularity of the military as an institution in Pakistan. The poster-boy for this traditional reverence for the army is the powerful Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef today, who is often the subject of frequent and curious #ThankYouRaheelShareef hashtags and trends on social media which heap appreciation on his efforts against terrorism, and hail him as a strong and upright general who has nothing but the best interests of Pakistan at heart. And while Nawaz Sharif and his government may have ostensibly survived the political crisis of 2014, posed by the impasse engendered by the Khan-Qadri protest sit-in, most believe the crisis was staging ground for the army to launch a soft coup; as a result of which the government ceded power over main matters of the state, such as foreign policy and security issues, to the army in exchange for the security and stability of their tenure.
In 1995 the late Eqbal Ahmad penned an article titled “The Signals Soldiers Pick”, offering an incisive analysis of the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan and the environments conducive to tilt that in either’s favor which still resonate. He emphasized that the end of military intervention in politics hinges upon “the legitimacy of the civilian system of power [being] established over a period of time.” He also stated that, ‘We [Pakistan] have been lacking both the political framework and leaders capable of investing the civilian system of government with authority, and taming the warrior class.’
In comparison to the AKP, it is patent that Pakistan’s democratically elected governments have not only been unable to enjoy hardly any period of uninterrupted power, most of which were cut short by instability and coups, to establish a democratic foothold – it was only in 2013, after 66 years, that the country had its first ever transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. When in power, they have been beset by charges of corruption and incompetence, and the threats of military intervention have always hung dangerously close to them. Democratic governments in Pakistan have also continually manifested a complete lack of political vision in terms of their quality of performance and governance, which invest the democratic system with credibility, popular support and legitimacy; that firmly confer upon it the empowering authority it often lacks. This is a challenge further compounded by their lack of imagination, will and courage to take on the military and establish ascendancy of the civilian democratic set-up in the Pakistani state’s equilibrium of power.
Evidently, smooth democratic continuity; a solid establishment of government credibility and stability; and the political will and vision to subdue unbridled military encroachments on the domain of state power are pivotal to democratic durability and authority in Pakistan. The road to it, however, remains rocky.
Lessons for Pakistan from Turkey
The failure of the coup in Turkey owes a great deal to democratic fervor. London-based British and Turkish writer and academic Ziya Meral was quick to praise the “many amazing journalists, academics, activists who are fierce critiques of AKP consistently spoke against the coup attempt.” According to Mustafa Akyol, this occurrence underscores “…that Turkish society has internalized electoral democracy, and Turkey’s secularists, despite their objections to the Erdogan government’s Islamism, seek solutions in democratic politics.”
Many Pakistanis took to social media during the coup attempt, praising the perpetrators and encouraging Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Shareef to lead a similar coup. The existence of this pro-military rule sentiment accentuates the flakey faith some segments of Pakistanis feel towards democratic governments, and the persistence of the military’s age-old, and well-crafted, popularity among the people as the “most trust-worthy institution” in the country – as was also revealed by a survey held last year – especially in contrast to political actors and leaders.
In response to a tweet stressing Erdogan’s authoritarianism, Al Jazeera’s Mohammad Alsaafin replied with, “[Erdogan is] not champion of democracy, but democratically elected.” Alsaafin’s comment contains a principal point; that it is essential to protect, improve and strengthen democracy as the institutional framework for the state and its citizens, despite its imperfections and problems.
As Erdogan unleashes his purges and pillory, the impression that he will entirely squander the support and goodwill he has garnered after the attempted coup, rather than use it for a moment of sensible reflection, is increasingly being lent weight. Nevertheless it is evident that unequivocal political support, the support of the masses and the allegiance of state organs to the belief in democratic civilian supremacy are key to a worthy effort and solid fight, if not bulwark, against the audacity of military adventurism. It is also important for Pakistan to understand that democracy means much more than a current government or a certain crop of leaders. To borrow the idea from Mustafa Akyol’s analysis, the solution to democratic problems must be sought in democratic politics.
Turkey may have had more coups than Pakistan, a gulf of different dynamics, and more turbulent experiences to reach this point, but it is never too late for Pakistan to pick a lesson or two from it.