The USC Middle East Studies Program held a panel to discuss the political situation in Turkey, which experienced an attempted coup in July, Monday in the Von KleinSmid Center. Assistant Professor Mehmet Sinan Birdal of Isik University’s department of international relations and Assistant Professor Veli Yashin of USC Dornsife’s department of comparative literature led the discussion, which included an audience consisting of students, faculty and alumni.
While both professors connected their thoughts to the topic of the coup, which was carried out by a faction within the Turkish military, both provided different angles on Turkish politics. Yashin read his latest paper on political trends in Turkey as an introduction, while Birdal used photographs to illustrate the methods that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using to consolidate his power.
“The biggest question, I think, right now, is who represents the people — the parliament or the president,” Birdal said. “More specific is the question of whether the office of the presidency is an executive office or a symbolic office. Even though Erdogan has a hold of the masses, that does not mean that he is the masses.
Birdal gave a bit of background on Erdogan’s role in power and how it affected Turkey’s current state. According to Birdal, Erdogan’s rise to power was a compromise between two evils — the alternative of which was complete warfare between the two conflicting groups of elites.
“If the rivalry between two groups of elites is so fierce that without a strong hand things would get out of hand … then you need a single person to rule over the factions,” Birdal said. “And Erdogan was this person who took this position.”
Yashin spoke about the complexities involved when different factions within Turkey compete for their individual interests. The most well-known of these is the ongoing conflict in Southeastern Turkey between the government and Kurdish rebels, who aim to establish an independent nation.
“One thing you have to understand is that the western media frames everything happening in Turkey as a conflict between secularists and Islamists,” Yashin said. “But when one contemplates the Turkish coup, much of the coup roots itself in what’s happening in the Kurdish region, and there are also other external factors, but the western media doesn’t really cover that.”
Yashin said that although the coup attempt in July was meant to topple Erdogan, it actually served as a tool for him to gain more power because it provided him with an excuse to strengthen his hold on the country. Since the event, Erdogan has carried out “purges” of government officials, university professors and others that he sees as potentially dangerous to his regime, claiming that these people were involved in the attempted coup.
“The idea that the specific actors of the coup attempt are being punished is a fiction,” Yashin said. “This coup attempt was a ‘gift of God,’ as Erdogan put it. It was only used to intensify what was an ongoing process of Erdogan trying to unite Turkey against the Kurds.”
Both Birdal and Yashin agreed that Turkey’s current situation is in a crisis. The military had previously toppled Turkey’s government in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, but Birdal said that Erdogan’s determination to jail and detain those he claims are responsible for the most recent attempt are undemocratic.
“Half of the Turkish government graduated from the Ankara University, where I studied political science,” Birdal said. “So they know everything that I know. That’s why I’m not sure why the state of the government is like this because they all know it will fail in the end.”
Yashin pointed out that there is no clear solution, but that the steps the Turkish government has taken in response to the coup attempt have been counterproductive.
“In many ways, Turkey is facing a constitutional, foundational crisis,” Yashin said. “We don’t know yet if it is going to survive this process, or if a new Turkey is going to emerge. The government needs to somehow redefine itself, but what has happened so far does not look promising.”