A judicial crisis as a symptom of democratic malaise
The term "coup" traditionally evokes images of military takeovers and forceful seizures of power from legitimate governments—often democratically elected—by the barrel of a gun. These events, not uncommon in regions like Africa and South America, have now taken on a new dimension in modern Turkey. The term has evolved, and the concept of a "coup" has expanded beyond its conventional military boundaries. This evolution is symptomatic of Turkey's democratic struggles, a subject I explore in depth in the Cambridge Scholars publication "The Ailing Turkish Democracy" (2020).
Turkey's history is punctuated by military coups, dating back to the Tanzimat reform era in the Ottoman Empire, with the most recent military attempt occurring on the night of July 15, 2016. These coups have left indelible scars, costing the lives of a Sultan, a Prime Minister, and his ministers and inflicting great suffering on the nation. The 1980 coup has cast a long shadow, contributing significantly to the democratic deficit that plagues modern Turkey.
Since the 1990s, particularly under conservative governments, Turkey has become acquainted with the notion of "post-modern" or "unarmed" coups. These are characterized not by purely military insurrection but by political maneuverings involving various societal actors. Their common goal is to subvert the country's already fragile democratic fabric through undemocratic means. Examples include the 1997 "soft coup," the tumultuous period from 2007 to 2013, the corruption scandals that emerged in the mid-2010s, and the aftermath of the failed 2016 military coup that ushered in the current, highly problematic constitution.
Recently, a new chapter has been added to this chronicle of "unarmed" coups, with Turkey's judiciary at its epicenter. In a troubling development, a segment of the Turkish judiciary, seemingly in collusion with the Ministry of Justice and the government, has endorsed the continued unlawful detention of a democratically elected member of the Grand National Assembly. This move was made in the shadow of the Constitutional Court's ruling in the opposite direction. The Court of Cassation not only contested this decision but also called for an investigation into the Constitutional Court's members.
For Turkey's opposition, these events amount to nothing less than a fresh "unarmed" coup—an assault on the foundational tenets of constitutional liberalism and democracy. My colleague Ali Duran Topuz aptly points out that a faction within the Turkish judiciary is aligning with the executive to challenge the authority of the nation's highest court. If this is not tantamount to a coup, then the term has lost all meaning.
This new "coup" aligns with the four pillars identified in "The Ailing Turkish Democracy" as underpinning Turkey's troubled democratic existence. These pillars are a politically impotent and economically dependent middle class; an unresolved national question, notably the Kurdish issue; a disregard for fundamental principles of liberal constitutionalism, including freedom of expression and respect for diversity and beliefs; and a flawed electoral democracy, tailored to benefit those who control the state apparatus.
In a country where economic dependence on the state is normalized and where questioning the national narrative is taboo, coups—military or otherwise—are almost to be expected. When the violation or distortion of constitutional principles is daily, it creates fertile ground for factions operating on the fringes of democratic norms. Moreover, undermining electoral democracy, which casts doubt on the legitimacy of political authority, paves the way for sporadic anti-democratic relapses.
Whether the current judicial crisis in Turkey qualifies as a new form of coup is arguable. However, one thing is clear: as long as the "big patient" continues to grapple with systemic illness, the body will continue to produce symptoms, pathologies, and "carcinomas" akin to those we are witnessing right now in Turkey. The recent judicial overreach is but a manifestation of the chronic maladies afflicting Turkish democracy—a democracy that remains in urgent need of healing and robust reform if it is to move beyond the cycle of crises and coups that have come to define it.