History may not repeat itself, but in Turkey it most certainly rhymes. Jeremy Seal’s meticulously researched and vivid book, A Coup in Turkey, tells the story of a charismatic, iconoclastic leader despised by Turkey’s metropolitan elites who comes to power on the votes of the peasantry by promising democracy and a return to Islamic piety. Emboldened by successive election victories – fuelled by a mosque-building campaign the country can ill afford – and convinced that he is the embodiment of the Milli Irade (‘National Will’), he turns against the press that helped to get him elected. He shuts down newspapers and vindictively jails editors and political opponents. Alarmed by this challenge to the secular legacy of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk, the army decides to step in and remove him from power.
Although much of the last paragraph could be about Turkey’s current strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the protagonist of Seal’s book is actually Erdoğan’s political hero, Adnan Menderes. Menderes served as Turkey’s prime minister from 1950 until his removal in a near-bloodless military coup in 1960. His life was ended on the gallows a year later.
The parallels between the two men’s careers are striking. Both Menderes and Erdoğan overturned the political establishment by drawing on the support of the hitherto politically marginalised, from the traditionally minded rural poor to the small businessmen of Anatolia. They both maintained power by blatant populism and conspiracy theorising, appealing