Commenter Michael brought up an excellent question: what about the Turkish army? From the beginnings of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the army was the final arbiter of Turkish politics, and viewed itself as the defender of the Kemalist secular state. Erdogan and Gul recognized this, and after the AKP ascended to power they went after the military, primarily through judicial means. It has largely neutered military opposition. At present, something like 20 percent of Turkey’s flag officers are in jail on a variety of charges, from plotting coups to far more sordid crimes.
As a result, the military is back on its heels, and poses far less of a threat to Erdogan’s government.
But the protests might change everything, because it changes the game and the players’ beliefs. No doubt the military is nursing its hurts, but heretofore has been unwilling to act because the government appeared popular and on the march. The protests demonstrate that there is serious opposition to Erdogan, and protests can be self-feeding: as protests gain mass, others who disagree with the government learn that more people than they had believed also disagree, which makes them more likely to oppose the government publicly.
This also provides information to the military, telling the officers in particular that Erdogan is more vulnerable than they had believed. This makes them more likely to become emboldened to challenge him. Military opposition, even if scattered, can in turn embolden the civilian opposition.
The military can also use any excesses by Erdogan’s government to justify intervention, saying that they are acting on behalf of the people, protecting them from oppression. They can wrap self-interested intervention in patriotic and populist justifications.
This is now a plausible scenario. Though not the only one. The opposition has a varied agenda, and inherently faces coordination problems that the government can exploit.
But the military can potentially determine the balance of power. Whereas it was reluctant to act independently after Erdogan’s purge, its calculus is now likely to change, because it now knows that there is widespread public opposition to Erdogan: this increases its estimate of the odds that it can prevail if it challenges the government. It can serve as a power broker, either by throwing its support to the opposition, or by threatening to do so, and negotiating with Erdogan to restore its dominant position in the Turkish state.
It surprises me that little of the commentary has considered the military’s role going forward: the coverage has focused on the turmoil in the streets. (I plead guilty too-Michael’s comment snapped me out of it.) This reflects a Romanticism that dominates popular perceptions of revolution. But in revolutions, the military typically plays the decisive role. This is likely to be true in Turkey too, especially given the military’s role in the Turkish Republic for the last 80 years. A new Kemal, or a Turkish Franco, is a very real possibility.
So keep an eye on the Turkish military. Hopefully the media will figure out it should be watching it more closely too.