World Economy

How Turkey's leader used a failed coup to step on the opposition

Key Points
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's position has strengthened one year after a failed military coup, strategists say
  • Ankara's controversial crackdown on dissenters has raised international eyebrows and is believed to have helped Erdogan consolidate power

As Turkey marks the first anniversary of a military coup aimed at ousting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader's position appears ironclad.

Rather than diminish his administration, the unsuccessful takeover of July 15-16, 2016 presented the head of state with a unique opportunity to consolidate power, allowing him to neutralize political opposition, strategists say.

Istanbul, July 15 2017: People chant slogans and wave flags at the first anniversary of the July 15, 2016 failed coup attempt.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images

And that's done little to heal the nation's divisive political environment. Over the weekend, several hundred thousand Turks took to the streets in support of the controversial president who pledged to penalize those responsible for the attempt to overthrow his government. Last week, other demonstrators protested Ankara's silencing of its critics.

"The coup came at a pretty ideal time for the Turkish president," Reva Goujon, vice president of global analysis at intelligence firm Stratfor, told CNBC on Monday. "Of course, nobody likes the idea of people plotting against you, but Erdogan definitely did make the most of it in using it as a broader pretext to crack down on a number of political dissenters."

According to Reuters, more than 150,000 Turks have been fired or suspended from civil and private sector jobs while over 50,000 have been detained for alleged links to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara deemed responsible for the thwarted takeover. That includes Friday's dismissal of 7,000 police, civil servants and academics. Gulen, however, has denied any involvement.

Once an ally of Erdogan, Gulen is now regarded by Ankara as a terrorist. "Turkey is a nation based on the rule of law," the embassy in Singapore told CNBC, adding that all legal measures were implemented to bolster the state as well as combat terrorism and criminal activity.

In his crackdown on Gulen's influential supporters — known as Gulenists — and other potential political adversaries, the 63-year old president also targeted ethnic Kurds in a move designed to win the support of nationalists. Emergency rule was also imposed shortly following the coup and may now be extended, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim suggested on Friday.

Violent protests unravel outside Turkish ambassador's residence
Violent protests unravel outside Turkish ambassador's residence

"All of this culminated in [Erdogan] being able to expand his presidential powers considerably through a constitutional referendum that occurred this past year," Goujon continued, referring to April's vote that culminated in a 51.41 percent victory for the leader.

Last July's landmark power grab resulted in over 270 deaths amid skirmishes between the army, police and protesters. The president himself has referred to the coup as a "gift from God" for him and his ruling Justice and Development Party.

"Erdogan is now in a strong position and there to stay," said Richard Martin, managing director of IMA Asia. "His purge of people from key posts will weaken many national institutions, including the judiciary, yet he remains very popular with the people — particularly the religious conservatives, about half the population. Even modern urban Turks were upset with another military coup."

In a sign of Ergodan's expanding control, the country's parliament will likely grant his bill to re-impose capital punishment, according to Martin. That's an action that could quash Ankara's chances of European Union membership.

"Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Erdogan has managed to extend his political shelf life at a time when Turkey's foreign policy is getting only more complex," said a recent Stratfor report.