Turkey Holds Its Breath

A Nation at a Crossroads Striving to Limit the Military Influence in Government

News | Nayeli Urquiza | June 2007

Istanbul – Turkey is at a crossroads. Either it will move forward toward stronger civic participation or stay in a comfort zone of military oversight in political life.

The possible election of Abdullah Gül, moderate Islamist Foreign Affairs Minister from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), during the electoral process at the end of April, was the spark that led to rallies across Turkey and a message that sent shockwaves through Europe.

The army plans to "maintain their sound determination to carry out their duties stemming from laws to protect the unchangeable characteristics of the Republic of Turkey," a military communiqué said in late April. "Their loyalty… is absolute."

This message may have shocked Europeans, but for some Turks in favor of clear-cut borders between religion and the state, the involvement of the military in the country’s politics has been a relief.

"I thought ‘Oh, my life is saved,’ " said Ertugrul Özkök, editor of the Istanbul-based daily Hürriyet, after he heard in the news that military leaders had finally pressured Islamist Nekbadin Erbakan to step down from his post as Prime Minister in 1997.

Erkaban’s Islamist party was later banned, but has since gradually returned from the ashes in the form of the AKP.

The role of the army has to be accepted as de facto in the country’s politics, according to the general consensus journalists and academics at the 56th World Congress of the International Press Institute held in Istanbul, May 12 to 15.

"Modern Turkey’s founder had a military basis," said Bassam Tibi, professor at the Centre for International Relations at the University of Göttingen. "Atatürk was a military general, but [also] a man of transformation for this society."

The armed forces in Turkey have long pulled the strings directing the country, and have intervened in the country’s politics at least four times.

The first three times were open coups d’état in 1960, 1970 and 1980, while the fourth was done through threats to Erkaban. With that kind of record, they have the credibility to back up their less-than-subtle message to the nation in April.

According to Andrew Mango, British academic and author of several books on Turkish politics, the military intervened in this occasion because the increase of power to the AK was perceived as an "existential threat" to the nation.

There are differences between the European and Turkish perspectives on the image of the military, Tibi said.

The founder of Turkey was a leader who, instead of using the military to create a dictatorship, established a republic, abolished Islamic political institutions such as the caliph and the sultan, established equal rights for men and women, and reformed the alphabet.

In the succeeding coups, the military juntas handed over power after only a few months. The military has thus served as a force for change when the civic rulers have failed, or when they have defied the military constitution that was established in 1980.

But some might argue that this independent decision-making body has created a vacuum, where the judiciary, the legitimate government body with the mandate to depose leaders, would have a greater effect.

Until civil society becomes a stronger force on the political landscape, the country will need the guardianship of the military, said Tibi.

"Don’t apply your own tradition to everybody." For him, the change of leadership in Turkey is not ready to be left in the hands of the political elite yet one must be aware of any "ism," including radical secularism.

A majority of Turks supported the military’s move and think of it as the most credible institution in the country.

In a poll published in the Turkish secular daily Hürriyet, 70 percent of the interviewees said they were against an Islamist president. In Turkey, 99.8% of the country’s population is Muslim.

Özkök said their fears are explainable, especially when they see the wives of high-ranking politicians appearing in public events wearing headscarves.

They also fear that the history of Iran, which turned from a secular to an Islamist state following the fall of the Shah in 1979, might repeat itself in Turkey.

Even though the moderate Islamist Gül promised that "the new president has to be faithful to the basic principles of the republic, to the democratic state, secular and social," the opposition didn’t seem to believe him.

They boycotted the second round in the elections and rallies continue to pop up in Turkish cities. The first two election rounds failed because there wasn’t enough quorum, 367 parliamentarians, to declare it valid.

In the end, secularist parties’ boycotts of the Parliament, the massive rallies in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, and other cities, and the unwavering resolution of the army, led Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to propose a legal initiative to reform the electoral process. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed the reform, but the Assembly overruled him.

Sezer will now have to convene a referendum on the reform package that will include an early call for popular elections, a reduction of the presidential period from seven to five years, and the possibility to be re-elected.

The move attempts to snatch the decision-making power from the military establishment, and give it back to the people by direct elections.

Observers see the move as a gamble to trust in the popularity of the AKP, which has the majority in Parliament and Erdogan as Prime Minister, rather than lose their power altogether.

Even with a firm separation of religion and state, Turkish leaders have learned about the value of religion as a tool for maintaining stability, Mango explained, and have inherited the Ottoman perspective that the government has to control the Imams.

According to Mango, the ruling class’ ideology has been that "religion is at the service of the state, controlled by the state," in a similar way to the Anglican system in Great Britain. Turkish leaders believed that "whatever is good for the country is good for Islam." Thus the state transcends religion, but it is not divorced from it.

Despite Islam’s being the major religion in Turkey, its citizens don’t seem to be willing to risk any changes to its 84 years of secular rule. The AKP holds the presidency, the majority in parliament and in the government. Gül would have been the first Islamist president, a fact which by itself could not pose a big threat, but in addition to his other powers, was felt to rock the sense of stability among Turks.

It’s not so much that the women "are afraid of a piece of cloth (the hijab) but the mentality behind it," said a journalist from Hürriyet at the IPI Congress.

Turkey will now have to hold its breath until the Jul. 22 election, when they will vote for a new parliament and perhaps for a referendum. But for now, its future remains in the hands of Sezer, who told Al-Jazzeera on May 3 that he vetoed the hasty reforms because they could lead to "a deviation from the parliamentary system" and could "create far-reaching, irreparable problems."

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