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doug saunders

The soldiers storm the presidential palace, kick out the increasingly autocratic leader and quickly restore constitutional rights and democracy: That is the popular dream of the military coup. For some Turks, though not most, that is the hazy memory of the last time the military seized power, in 1980; for others, it is what they think was attempted Friday night.

But however bad things have become – and this is a truly dark moment in Turkish democracy – there is no reason to wish a military takeover, however secular and democratic its stated aims. A military coup is not a popular uprising; it does not express the will of the people, and can only, at most, restore a badly crippled and permanently restricted democracy.

And this coup attempt did not have the support of the voters, minorities or opposition parties it claimed to support. It would only have made things worse. And, if it proves to have failed completely, it will also have made things worse, far worse, in the crackdown that will follow. Soldiers are rarely friends to democracy.

Turks need only look next door to Egypt, which has suffered for two years under a military-imposed regime. Or to Venezuela or Pakistan, crippled by 1990s coups that claimed to restore democracy.

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That does not mean there is any reason to pity President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Around 2011, he ceased to be the moderate and unifying reformist leader who had come to power in 2002 and won the support of a strong majority of Turks.

In recent years, he has shut down the opposition press, imprisoning scores of journalists; he has endorsed the violent repression of protesters seeking everything from democratic freedoms to public parks to gay rights; he has taken advantage of terrorist incidents in order to hold a questionable election that gave him an absolute majority; he has altered the constitution to give himself the possibility of holding a perpetual presidency.

He has also waged a full-scale war against the country's Kurdish minority, abandoning the significant expansion of Kurdish equality rights he had earlier accomplished, and he has confounded the coalition war in Syria by waging battles against Russia and the Kurds. And in recent weeks, he has appeared to have shifted allegiances toward restoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule, frightening his NATO allies.

As I wrote in March, Mr. Erdogan has shifted this year from using the tools of authoritarianism to using the tools of totalitarianism: He has become a threat to his own people.

But that does not mean that a military takeover is at all an advisable solution. For one thing, Mr. Erdogan genuinely was elected, in an election that was called under questionable circumstances but was fairly conducted, by a majority of Turkish voters; there is every reason to believe those voters still support him. If the coup were to have succeeded, its interim government would have been at war with the Turkish people, and its "restoration" of democracy, which would surely involve outlawing Mr. Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, would not have legitimacy.

For another, the military did not appear to have any significant branch of the public or civil society behind it when it launched a war against the government on Friday night. All of the major opposition parties, including the Kurdish HDP, condemned the coup from its outset, as did major figures in the opposition media.

If it proves to have failed, it will have been a terrible miscalculation on behalf of military figures: a coup whose success stood no chance of making things better, and whose failure is sure to make things worse.

There was a popular theory going around Istanbul Friday night that Mr. Erdogan had orchestrated the coup himself to strengthen his rule. It's a very typically Turkish theory in its appeal to elaborate paranoia, and is almost certainly untrue. He needed nothing so complex to strengthen his rule.

But, sadly, in the end, if the coup has truly failed, it will be as if the theory had been true. Mr. Erdogan will have every reason to crack down against the military, the opposition, the Gulen Islamist movement he opposes and civil institutions. The coup, as is so often the case, will have brought about the very thing it opposed. The end of Mr. Erdogan will await a real popular uprising, pushed further into the future.