Turkey’s Military Throw Down the Gauntlet (ARI)

Turkey’s Military Throw Down the Gauntlet (ARI)

Theme: The Turkish military’sthreat to intervene if the next President is an Islamist plunged the country, which is negotiating EU entry, into its most serious political crisis since 1997 when a ‘soft’ coup got rid of an Islamist-dominated government. The calling of early elections on July 22 and possibly presidential ones at the same time (by popular and not parliamentary vote for the first time) broke the current political deadlock, but it will not in itself resolve the fundamental problem of squaring Turkey’s rigid brand of secularism with a modern liberal democracy.

Summary: The crisis was sparked by the military’s threat to intervene if the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamist roots, pushed ahead with its candidate for the presidency, Abdullah Gul, the Foreign Minister. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, broke with tradition and openly defied the armed forces, the self-appointed guardians of the secular constitution. His spokesman reminded them that constitutionally they were bound to take their orders from the Prime Minister, not vice versa. Gul refused to withdraw his candidature and following the decision of the Constitutional Court, the bastion of secularism, to block his candidacy on the dubious grounds that parliament lacked a quorum to elect him, Erdogan brought forward the general election scheduled for November. The AKP is likely to be re-elected.


The first rumblings of discontent from ‘secular’ Turkey came on April 14 when some 400,000 people gathered at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, to protest against a possible presidential candidacy by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide victory in the 2002 election and has 353 of the 550 seats in the parliament, the body responsible for electing the President. An enormous Turkish flag was unfurled at the mausoleum among the demonstrators from the civil service, the judiciary and other segments of society, known as the ‘deep state’ which the armed forces front. This show of strength undoubtedly persuaded Erdogan not to opt for the presidency which he did on April 24; by then his family was also asking him not to run. General Yasar Büyükanit, the chief of the general staff, had expressed the hope that the next President would be someone loyal to the secularism principle of the republic ‘not only in words, but in deeds as well’.

It seemed that Vecdi Gonul, the Defence Minister, would be the presidential candidate. He does not come from the Islamist Welfare Party lineage (the precursor of the AKP) and his wife, unlike the wives of Erdogan and Gul, does not wear the Muslim headscarf (as do an estimated 55% of Turkish women), which is banned in public buildings.[1] Bulent Arinc, the Speaker of the parliament and a heavyweight in the AKP, also harboured presidential ambitions and according to insiders vetoed Gonul. Arinc suggested last month that the next President should be pious, and even boasted about outmanoeuvring Erdogan during the nomination process. He also has proposed that Turkey’s version of secularism be redefined, all of which annoyed the military. Wisely, the AKP chose Abdullah Gul, the Foreign Minister, a respected and charismatic figure on the European diplomatic scene for leading the efforts to incorporate Turkey into the EU, as its presidential candidate.

But the armed forces still saw red –and probably would have accepted no AKP party member– and several hours after parliament voted on April 27 in the first round and failed to agree on Gul because the AKP lacked the 10 votes giving it the required two-thirds majority, they posted a statement on their website noting there had been efforts to roll back secularism. It cited four examples of religious events organised during the April 23 national day celebrations marking the convening of the first parliament in 1920. The statement criticised Governors for failing to stop these events; the implicit message was that the organs of state were not doing their job. It then went on to mention debates around secularism in the context of the presidential elections and clearly stated that the armed forces would not hesitate to fulfil their legal duty to protect secularism (under the 1980 constitution which it largely drafted after a coup), and that no one should doubt its resolve. Turks baptised this ultimatum an ‘e-coup’ or ‘virtual coup’. Some sources question whether the statement had the explicit blessing of the top brass. Its timing and rather erratic prose are cited as evidence that this may have been a last minute move to preclude a more direct military intervention.

The opposition, led by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), created around Atatürk, boycotted the vote in parliament and then appealed to the constitutional court, the highest legal body, a former President of whom, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, is the Republic’s current President, to have the vote annulled because a quorum of two-thirds of parliament’s 550 MPs was not present. On April 29 up to one million people took to the streets of Istanbul to stage their second protest against the government, chanting ‘no to coups’ and ‘no to sharia’ (Islamic law).

The court upheld the appeal on May 1, thereby cancelling the May 9 vote in parliament when only 50% of the vote would have been needed, something the AKP was easily assured of. The court’s decision was hardly surprising since nine of its 11 members were appointed by the militant Kemalist Sezer. Gul said that if the court verdict were to be interpreted fully, it would mean that the parliamentary votes that elected the last three Presidents were invalid.

The secular elite fears that if the AKP controlled the presidency as well as parliament and government the system of checks and balances would disappear. The President, who swears an oath of allegiance to the ‘secular nature of the Republic’, is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, responsible for certain top appointments and has a veto power over laws approved by parliament. Sezer has not hesitated to use these powers –for example, he vetoed Erdogan’s appointment for the post of Governor of the Bank of Turkey-. Both Sezer and Büyükanit have said on several occasions that Turkey has never faced a great a threat as it does now. Is this really so? 

Political Islam in Turkey
Political Islam has been on the rise since the watershed year of 1972 when the National Salvation Party (NSP) gained 11.8% of the vote and 48 seats in parliament (see Figure 1). In 1974 the NSP formed a coalition government with the Republican People’s Party and Necmettin Erbakan, the NSP leader, became Deputy Prime Minister. At the next general election, in 1977, the NSP vote dropped to 8.6% and the number of deputies fell to 24, but it still played a brief part in power, as part of another coalition.

Figure 1. Political Islam in Turkey: % of vote and seats in parliament held by Islamist parties, 1972-2002

National Salvation11.8488.624
Justice & Development34.0363

V = votes; S = seats.
Source: Turkish Interior Ministry.

During the 1980s, the successor to the NSP, the Welfare Party, remained outside parliament because of a series of factors emanating from the 1980 coup (restrictions on parties, a ban on individuals permitted to stand, including Erbakan, and changes in the electoral law which established a threshold of 10% of the vote for seats in parliament). In 1991, with Erbakan back at the helm, Welfare returned to parliament by joining forces with two other parties in order to pass the 10% barrier and in 1995, on its own, it emerged as the largest political party of all with 158 seats, shaking the political establishment. By then Welfare had successfully mobilized the urban lower classes, which had become poorer with the change in economic policies after 1980, and it had filled the vacuum left by the weakening of the leftist parties. Welfare was particularly attractive to migrants to Istanbul and Ankara from the countryside who live in shanty towns and often work in primitive conditions, as it provided a network of welfare services not offered by the state. According to Malise Ruthven, ‘migration from the countryside to the city often leads to an increase in religiosity, as a more intense and self-conscious style of religious observance compensates for the more relaxed rhythms of village life… urbanised underclasses are particularly susceptible to the messages of populist preachers’.[2] The vote for Welfare also reflected the enormous loss of confidence in the corrupt and discredited political system and a belief that an Islamist party would be cleaner.

Welfare formed Turkey’s first coalition government led by an Islamist party, but it was forced out of office in June 1997 in a ‘soft’ coup (the fourth time an elected government had been ousted since 1960, albeit bloodlessly). The party was shut down in 1998 by the Constitutional Court and Erbakan banned again. Welfare’s successor, the Virtue Party, won 15% of the vote in the April 1999 general election, making it the largest opposition party, with 111 seats. In 2001 the Constitutional Court outlawed Virtue and in November 2002 the AKP, a new party founded by Erdogan and Gul which split off from AKP, won a sweeping victory in the general election, with 34% of the vote. The Virtue Party was reorganised as Felicity and won a mere 2% of the vote. Nearly all the traditional parties, perceived by voters as being very corrupt, were eliminated from parliament, a stunning blow to the Kemalist status quo. The AKP’s results were very much a personal victory for Erdogan and Gul. They had founded the party after breaking away from the firebrand Erbakan who had tried to put the country on an Islamist path.

Successive bans on Islam-based parties have had no effect; indeed quite the reverse, for political Islam had become a mass force. The secular establishment failed to comprehend that Turkey’s Islamism is more a movement than a party as it is ‘rooted in local culture, interpersonal relations, and community networks, yet connected through civic organizations to national party politics’.[3] The AKP is a bottom-up movement which has successfully challenged the authoritarian, centralised top-down paternalism of the political system. This explains how it has managed to sustain political momentum, despite the bans.

Erdogan, a former dynamic mayor of Istanbul, could not immediately take up his post as Prime Minister (it was assumed by Gul) as he had served a 10-month jail term in 1999 and was banned from politics for life for inciting religious hatred, after reading out a poem in public (‘Our mosques are our barracks, our domes our helmets, the minarets are our bayonets and our believers our soldiers’). Barred from holding a parliamentary seat, he did not become Prime Minister until March 2003 after the AKP-controlled parliament amended the constitution and Erdogan won a by-election.

The AKP is the most successful party in Turkey for 50 years; its record of reforms on all fronts is second to none, as it had to be if the government was to persuade the EU to open accession talks which it did in 2005, more than 40 years after Turkey became an associate member of the then EEC. One reason why the AKP is pro-European is that it believes EU membership will permit a greater degree of freedom to exercise the Muslim faith (the activities of some Christian religious minorities in Turkey are also significantly curtailed). Instead of flirting with Islamist states, such as Iran, which Erbakan did, and adopting populist policies at home, Erdogan, greatly aided by Gul (who served in Erbakan’s government as Spokesman and Secretary of State for relations with the Islamic world) got down to the solid business of reforming the economy (inflation has been tamed, average per capita income almost doubled between 2003 and 2006 to US$5,477 and foreign direct investment has poured in), the judiciary and the constitution. Human rights and freedom of the press have improved, though not enough, and the military’s power reduced, particularly in the National Security Council, a kind of shadow government, although insufficiently as the latest events show. The AKP has not overturned the secular order nor created a single law that puts it on a path to Islamic fundamentalism. Whenever there have been radical moves, such as a bid to outlaw adultery, society has been very quick to react and the government has backed down. 

The AKP does not like to be called a neo-Islamist party and prefers to be compared to a European Christian Democrat party (Germany’s, for example) in a Muslim context. Just as no fuss is made when a practising Catholic holds high office, so, the AKP reasoning goes, there should be no fuss, let alone sabre-rattling, about a democratic Muslim doing the same. Turkey, however, is a very special case.

Turkey’s Brand of Secularism
Secularism (inspired by the French principle and practice of laïcité) is the bedrock principle of the Republic, founded in 1923, and many Turks believe that but for it the country today would not be the most democratic one in the Muslim world. Islam is the predominant religion and people are free to practice it, but at the same time it is micro-managed by the Religious Affairs Department which writes the sermons and keeps control of imams, something that clashes with the Western idea of freedom of religion. Islamic education in Turkey, unlike in the rest of the Muslim world, is organised along European lines of instruction and not along traditional Islamic ones. For the founders of the Republic, Islam was a faith that should be reduced to the private sphere and not be allowed to get organised and play any role in the public sphere as it was seen as a regression to the backwardness of the Ottoman past. Kemal Atatürk abolished the caliphate, replaced Islamic law with Western legislation, introduced the Latin alphabet and gave women the right to vote and enter all professions. The broad movement known as Kemalism is still today a kind of state religion, to which a broad range of society (civil servants, academics, journalists, diplomats, university students, the military, the professional classes) pay firm allegiance.

Significantly, the phrase ‘Turkey is secular and will remain secular’, rather than an appeal for more democracy, was the most loudly expressed slogan at the massive public demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul. Secularism in Turkey is equated more with westernisation and modernity than with democracy; if ardent Kemalists were asked to honestly say whether they preferred to sacrifice secularism or liberal democracy most would probably say democracy rather than that the two concepts should be complementary as they are in the West.

Although the AKP has not put any Islamic law on the statute book, it has yet to win the hearts and minds of urban secularists (known as ‘white Turks’), as opposed to the bulk of its more pious constituents in rural Turkey (and migrants to the cities). Five years after the AKP took office, the secular elite still fears that the party has a hidden agenda and that if it controlled the presidency as well as parliament and the government it would be in a position to move the country towards an Islamic theocracy. At the local level, where many town halls are controlled by the AKP, there has been some creeping Islamisation (alcohol bans in towns, for example). It should also not be forgotten that Turkey shares borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria and the military have an acute sense of the country’s security.

The AKP has shown itself to be a pro-European and modern political party, but this has not been sufficient. The ‘deep state’ is still stuck in the past, particularly the military, and has not come to terms with the new realities. It was thus inevitable, and Erdogan must have known this, that by claiming the AKP’s democratic right to nominate someone for the presidency there would inevitably be a showdown. Indeed, he may have deliberately sought to bring the issue to a head.

Just as Turkey’s secularism is misunderstood in the West, so too are the country’s armed forces which today are still the most respected institution in the country, according to opinion polls. The generals’ tendency over close to 50 years to intervene may seem undemocratic, but, as the columnist Metin Munir pointed out, arguably the politicians they ousted were more undemocratic than both the generals and the means they employed to get rid of them.[4] The first coup in 1960 overthrew a government that had become corrupt and despotic, crushed the opposition and muzzled the media. The Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, was hanged. The second one in 1971 (in the form of a memorandum) provoked the fall of Suleymán Demirel and in 1980 the army seized power at a time when the country was in a virtual state of civil war, with the left and the ultra right battling it out in the streets. In 1997 it raised its voice and got rid of an Islamist-dominated government without sending a single tank onto the streets. Power was returned to civilians relatively quickly and the presidency went to former military men or personalities close to the army’s thinking.

The secularists’ cause is not helped by the weak and fragmented opposition to the AKP, both on the right and on the left of the political spectrum. There are sound reasons to believe that it sought to achieve in the Constitutional Court and in the massive demonstrations what it has been unable to do at the polls. There appears to be no one around whom they would unite as a presidential candidate. A solid and pragmatic one would be Kemal Dervis, a former Economy Minister now working for the United Nations, if he could be persuaded to return.

Ironically, the 10% share of the vote needed to win representation in parliament, a threshold mainly aimed at Kurdish parties, is also working against the interests of AKP’s opponents and hence of the secular elite. Parliament is skewed: the AKP has 34% of the vote, but almost two-thirds of the seats. As a result, the Islamists’ bid for the presidency is already producing a realignment of political parties. Two of Turkey’s once-dominant but now insignificant conservative parties –Motherland and True Path– are to merge under the banner of the Democrat Party.

Conclusion: Turkey has changed considerably in the 10 years since the ‘post-modern’ coup. The EU accession process, partly stalled since last December because of the failure to resolve the longstanding conflict with Cyprus, has been a tremendous catalyst for change. The military, however, has not changed its mindset sufficiently. Oli Rehn, the EU enlargement Commissioner, reminded the generals that the EU was founded on principles including the ‘supremacy of democratic civilian power over the military’ and that ‘if a country wants to become a member of the union, it needs to respect those principles’.

The military were able to shrug off the warning, partly because Europe is blowing hot and cold about Turkey’s EU membership and is losing influence among the armed forces and support among the people whose enthusiasm is waning. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s new President was bad news for Turkey’s EU prospects as he is adamantly against the country’s membership. Washington, for whom Ankara is a crucial ally (its army is the second largest in NATO) and with whom there are strained relations over Iraq (and rising anti-American sentiment in Turkey) was also not very forceful in denouncing the generals, for fear of antagonising them.

How the presidential issue is resolved matters not just for Turkey, but also for the wider Muslim world and the belief that secularism and democracy can be reconciled. If parliament does not approve the constitutional changes so that the President can be elected by popular vote, the issue might be put to a referendum that might coincide with the general election due on July 22. Under a proposed reform, the President would serve up to two five-year terms, instead of one seven-year term, and parliament’s term would last four years instead of five. Gul said he would stand for the presidency on a popular vote. Further confrontation with the military thus looks unavoidable unless the AKP has a change of heart and proposes a non-Islamist figure as President.

The best way forward for Turkey would be for the AKP to be re-elected and to win the presidency and for the powers of the military and of the presidency to be reduced. Spain’s King Juan Carlos, who assumed the throne in 1975 after General Franco died, once confided that democracy in his country would not really be consolidated until the Socialists won power –which they did in 1982–. The same can be said about an Islamist becoming President of Turkey, as it would signify the country’s coming of age as a modern democracy.

William Chislett
Writer, author of three Working Papers on Turkey for the Elcano Royal Institute

[1] Erdogan’s wife has been received in the White House in Washington wearing a headscarf, but not in the presidential palace in Ankara. The headscarf issue is an extremely complex one in Turkey. In November 2005 the European Court of Human Rights rejected an appeal by student who brought a case in 1998 for being excluded from class at Istanbul University for wearing the headscarf. The ruling on the grounds that it is necessary to ‘preserve the secular character of educational institutions’ came as a bitter disappointment for Erdogan who was hoping for EU support in easing the headscarf restrictions. In the UK, for example, a student would win such a case. France, however, has tightened laws on the wearing of religious symbols. There is no EU-wide stance on the issue.

[2] See Malise Ruthven, A Very Short Introduction to Islam, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 137.

[3] See Jenny B. White, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, University of Washington Press, 2002, p. 27.

[4] See ‘Turks Want Neither a Coup nor an Islamic State’, Financial Times, 2/V/2007.