The Rise and Fall of Military Tutelage in Turkey: Fears of Islamism, Kurdism, and Communism

Ahmet Kuru


Insight Turkey, Vol. 14, No.2, 2012, pp. 37-57

Military interventions in politics—whether in the form of coups d’état or more subtle forms of interference—are a major problem for democratic consolidation.1 Civilian politicians in Turkey had to share power with military officers for decades. Until 1980, Turkey was similar to three other Southern European countries regarding military obstacles to democratization.2 According to Freedom House, in 1975 Turkey moved from being partly-free to being one of 42 free countries, while Greece moved from non-free to free, and Portugal and Spain from non-free to partly-free status. Greece has been labeled as free since that time, as has Portugal since 1977 and Spain since 1978. Turkey dropped to partly-free with the 1980 military coup and continued to be labeled as such for three decades.3 The frequent military interventions in and armed forces’ tutelage over politics is the main reason why Turkish democracy was not consolidated.

All democratically elected Turkish prime ministers struggled with various degrees of military interventions. Adnan Menderes was hanged following the 1960 coup, Süleyman Demirel was thrown out of office as a result of the 1971 and 1980 coups, while Necmettin Erbakan was forced to resign as a consequence of the 1997 “soft” coup. Most recently, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was frequently challenged by the military establishment.

What made military generals powerful enough to consistently undermine the authority of democratically elected politicians in Turkey? I argue that ideological allies, particularly in the judiciary, political parties, and the media, in addition to some segments of society, provided the Turkish military with the necessary political power and encouragement. These influential civilians embraced assertive secularist,4 Turkish nationalist,5 and anti-communist ideologies,6 which made them worried about “Islamic reactionary,” “Kurdish separatist,” and “communist” threats. They regarded the military’s oversight of politics as the most effective way of avoiding these threats. This is not to suggest that the Turkish military reluctantly intervened in politics as a result of civilian pressure; on the contrary, the military used these three threats to keep its allies constantly alert and its political role justified.

This analysis covers more than half a century during which the military’s ideological allies and targets had changing emphases from one decade to another. Thus, ideological polarization did not occur between two simple social blocks. Many conservative Muslim Turks, for example, were among those who supported the military’s political influence due to fears of the communists and Kurdish nationalists. Yet, the key supporter of the military was the established elite who combined assertive secularism, Turkish nationalism, and anti-communism.

Nevertheless, the Turkish military’s political influence has recently declined. On April 27, 2007, Turkish Parliament had the first round of voting to elect the new president. At midnight, the military posted an ultimatum on its web site, which was later known as the “e-coup,” to prevent the election of Abdullah Gül from the Justice and Development (AK) Party.7 The ultimatum tried to justify the military intervention in presidential election and to alert the military’s civilian allies by using the “Islamic reactionary” and “Kurdish” threats. It referred to the attempts to reinterpret secularism, Qur’an recitation competitions, and celebrations of the birthday of the Prophet as anti-secular activities. It also targeted Kurds, noting that “all who oppose Atatürk’s statement ‘How happy is he who can say “I am a Turk” ’ are enemies of the Turkish Republic and will remain as such.” Yet the AK Party government did not back off and asserted its authority over the military. Four months later, Gül was elected as the president.

The failure of the e-coup attempt meant the beginning of the declining military tutelage over Turkish politics. From 2007 to the present, several court cases against coup plans have resulted in the prosecution and detainment of over three hundred military officers, including sixty active duty generals and admirals. Recently, the former chief of the general staff, Gen. İlker Başbuğ, was also arrested. Additionally, legal changes removed several military prerogatives by limiting the jurisdiction of military courts in favor of civilian courts. Moreover, the president and prime minister began to intervene in the appointments of top military commanders in an unprecedented way. These transformations coincided with severe criticism of the military in the media.

The military’s political influence has weakened despite the continuing support of its ideological allies. These civilian allies are no longer as powerful, while a new Muslim conservative elite has become increasingly influential in the economy, political society, the media, and the judiciary at the expense of the old, pro-military, and generally assertive secularist elite. Pro-Islamic conservative politicians have legitimized their rule and restricted the military’s way of justifying its interventions in politics by a) replacing the old Islamist rhetoric with a new “conservative democratic” discourse and b) successfully adapting to international conditions such as Turkey’s candidacy to the European Union (EU) and its integration in the world economy, and c) forming an alliance with the liberal intellectuals.
This article first analyzes alternative explanations for the military tutelage over Turkish democracy based on state-centric, culturalist, and institutionalist approaches. Then it elaborates an argument about the role of ideological allies in the military’s political position. Finally, it examines major reasons for the military’s declining political efficacy after 2007.

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