BACKGROUND: Turkey’s current political crisis was triggered in early 2007, with the military playing an important role in the way events unfolded. The upcoming presidential elections were the major contentious issue. Secular circles in the military, judiciary and bureaucracy were already unnerved by the changing balances in politics and society that had developed after the moderate Islamist AKP came to power in 2002. The main constitutional check to the AKP’s exercise of power was the office of the president, held by the staunchly secular former judge, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. But Sezer’s term was coming to an end, igniting speculation and debate regarding the election by parliament of his successor. Given the AKP’s domination of the parliament, it was natural for the next president to be selected from among its members. The question, however, was whether the next president should be a person with a background in the Islamist circles known as the Milli Görus or national outlook movement. This movement has for decades formed the nucleus of political Islam in Turkey.
A consensus developed among the liberal intelligentsia that a moderate AKP personality should be nominated to the presidency, in order to avoid upsetting the country by selecting a highly partisan and polarizing figure, such as Prime Minister Erdogan himself. Indeed, this was one of the main themes of the Republican demonstrations attended by millions of people. The matter was made worse by the AKP’s silence over the issue, as Erdogan was apparently deliberating until the very end whether or not to run. Eventually, he decided not to run, but the “core” of AKP, which also included Abdullah Gül and Bulent Arinç, eventually failed to rise above their desire to capitalize on their current parliamentary strength, and decided against electing someone who did not embrace the views of the National Outlook Movement. Hence Gül was nominated for the presidency.
On April 27, 2007, the night of the first round of voting for the presidency, an electronic memorandum was posted on the military’s website, reiterating the military’s position as the defender of the secular republic and warning against the weakening of secular protections in society. Simultaneously, the opposition CHP decided to apply to Constitutional Court over a seeming technicality, arguing that a quorum of 367 was needed for parliament to proceed to the next round of voting – something the AKP lacked, as the CHP refused to attend the vote. When the Constitutional Court decided in favor of the petition, the government decided to hold early elections.
Pressures from other parts of the secular establishment were undoubtedly a factor in this decision of the Constitutional Court. But the July elections were held under the shadow of the military’s e-memorandum. Moreover, the opposition remained sclerotic, offering little in terms of policies, especially as the reunification of lingering center-right parties failed. Making use of a feeling of having been wronged, and with the slogan of “we will elect a Muslim president”, the AKP gained a landslide victory of 47 percent. Even though its 341 deputies put the AKP short of the magic 367 number once again, the Nationalist Movement Party’s (MHP) statement indicating it would participate in the voting procedure implied that the AKP could elect its own candidate.
This constituted a serious setback for the military, which – unusually – had remained silent both before and after the e-memorandum. Traditionally, Turkish military interventions in politics take place through high-profile speeches by military brass or through the national security council, raising doubts on the rationale behind the memorandum.
IMPLICATIONS: For a while, hopes of an accommodation between the government and the military were high. Indeed, the military had taken a clear step back in the 2000s, until the e-memorandum. Before the 2007 election, a secret one-on-one meeting was held between Erdogan and Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit in Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul. Both its very occurrence, its length of several hours, and its location indicated its importance, and led to a general sense that a tacit agreement had been arrived at. On election night, Erdogan made a very moderate speech in which he presented himself as the leader of all Turks, including those that had not voted for him, and promised moderation. These two events, put together, seemed to indicate that a compromise candidate would be elected to the presidency. Had that happened, Turkey’s crisis would likely have abated. But events took a different turn, with the military’s role being all but clear.
Instead of a compromise candidate, the AKP once again nominated Gül. Reportedly, Gül himself refused to stand back for a compromise candidate, over Erdogan’s objections. In any case, the nomination was the first of many later indications that the AKP, boosted by its electoral success, felt no need to accommodate the opposition. With Abdullah Gül elected president, the military for the first time had to accept a president from an Islamist tradition, with a wife wearing the Islamic headscarf.
Given the president’s authority in terms of appointments of high officials in universities and the judiciary, Gül’s election implied a strong likelihood of a change of the balance in institutions like Constitutional Court, other high courts, as well as presidents of universities – important institutions that constitute the checks and balances of the system. This immediately roused concern in secular circles, concern that was seemingly vindicated by the AKP’s two immediate moves in the sphere of education: first, the appointment of Prof. Ziya Özcan, a person with strong AKP credentials, as the President of the Board of Higher Education; and second, the passage in parliament of a constitutional amendment seeking to enable the Islamic headscarf to be worn in universities.
This constitutional amendment was apparently the trigger for the submission by the Chief Prosecutor of a case – prepared over several years – to the Constitutional Court, seeking the closure of the AKP. The case requested the banning of Prime Minister Erdogan, President Abdullah Gül and dozens of other AKP members from politics, on account of subverting the secular order.
During the preparation and submission of the court case, judges and prosecutors have appeared to be the main actors. However, observers accustomed to the dynamics of Turkish politics have long suspected that the real force behind the case was the military. According to this logic, it would be impossible for a prosecutor alone to confront the ruling party with a closure case. Indeed, there is a perfectly plausible argument that the military has softened its methods to pressure the system, adapting them to contemporary norms. Indeed, aside from the e-memorandum, whose purpose and circumstances leave many questions unanswered, the military did not apply direct pressure on the government, raising its discontent about the well-being of secularism and the republic in the National Security Council.
Indeed, this perception appears to be reigning in the AKP as well. It was probably no coincidence that the same day as the chief prosecutor was to deliver his oral argument in the case to the constitutional court, the government ordered the arrest of two dozen suspects, including two former four-star generals, in an investigation directed at militant secularists groups allegedly conspiring to undermine the government. In addition, there has been a targeted media campaign against the military in recent weeks, spearheaded by Islamist-leaning newspapers. Taraf daily claimed thatthe General staff had been making plans for the manipulation of public opinion, forcing the General staff to issue a rather weak denial. Subsequently, Tarafpublished allegations that the military had had advance information about an attack by the PKK in Daglica last year, suggesting that the military had deliberately neglected taking steps to protect its soldiers.
What this flow of events suggests is that Turkey finds itself in a novel situation, lacking a historical parallel. Having captured the helms of government, the Islamist forces are not only resisting the secular establishment’s attempt to safeguard the republic’s secular system; they are actively fighting back against the secular establishment including the military.
Republican demonstrations, Izmir, 2007
The military is by no means alone: quite to the contrary, the republican demonstrations in 2007 showed that millions of people are willing to take to the streets to safeguard the secular republic, and if anything, those sentiments have strengthened since. Yet the army remains the most dynamic and systemic focal point of the opposition to the religious conservatism which has increasingly come to impregnate the AKP’s policies. The military’s silence should be understood as a sign of patience, as a determination to allow indirect means spearheaded by the judiciary a chance to eliminate the perceived threat to the republic. In other words, the military seeks to employ every possible “diplomatic” solution to the problem, in order to avoid “waging war”. But expecting the military to step back without the threat being eliminated or at least weakened is not realistic.
In this sense, a crucial problem is that the AKP and its leadership appear not to properly understand the Turkish army, its mentality, or its structures. While the AKP employs well-paid advisors for a multitude of issues conducting themselves extremely professionally, it does not have advisors able to correctly evaluate the attitudes of the military. Because of their social codes, the AKP elite does not attend the same social circles as military people, which means that the areas in which AKP politicians and military leaders can get to know one another and establish personal connections, let alone relations of friendship, are largely absent. Such connections would suffice to better understand the military’s ways of reasoning. With their worldview and lifestyle, AKP leaders have a completely different perception of the world than the military and secular circles. This is an issue which increases the distance between the two sides of the current political struggle, and which contributes to the mutual fear between them.
Hence, the AKP seems to assume that the military ultimately will be unable to oppose it. One of the AKP leadership’s mistaken assumptions appears to be that the military’s opposition originates from only one of several groups within the military. However, as those familiar with the military observe, sensitivity about secularism is not restricted to a group or faction of the officers. The military has not always acted as the staunch watchdog of secularism; the military junta in the 1980’s was for instance instrumental in encouraging Islam as a counter-weight to the radical left. But in the current state of ideologically charged polarization, there is much less room for pragmatically motivated deviations from what in the final analysis remains an integral part of the military’s core ideology and its historical mission. Hence the scheduled replacement in August of Gen. Yasar Büyükanit, the current Chairman of the General Staff, with Gen. Ilker Basbug is unlikely to make any difference. However, should the government interfere in the military chain of command to bypass Basbug and appoint some other general to the post, as has been suggested, that could well be the last drop. Furthermore, officers at lower levels of the army – in part because of growing financial difficulties – appear to favor a harder line opposition against the AKP government. Pressure from below upon the General Staff is hence, generally speaking, underestimated. In this respect, it should be recalled that the 1960 coup was undertaken by the colonels; this lesson has been internalized by all subsequent leaders of the Turkish military.
CONCLUSIONS: If the pending dissolution of the AKP by the Constitutional Court – in all likelihood a foregone conclusion – does not yield the intended results, it is likely that the secular part of the state establishment, led by the military, will take harsher measures. A repetition in some adapted form of the events of 1997, known as the “February 28 process” or more fancifully as a post-modern coup, is far from unlikely. The generals maintain the option of approaching the National Security Council with a list of concerns and concrete demands for the implementation of their favored steps. They can for instance ask the government to take actions against certain, religious groups and their institutions and demand that their activities be restricted. In this case, the ability of the AKP to resist will be seriously challenged.
Turkey is going through an unprecedented regime crisis, with a “civil war” raging within the state. Against the military and parts of the judiciary stands a government that can count on the loyalty of the police and of its “own” parts of the judiciary. While the General staff has displayed a certain willingness to seek a common ground with the AKP government, the Islamists have opted for a have-it-all attitude. With the recent arrests,,moreover, the government has raised the stakes further. They clearly imply that the AKP is ready to take further actions against the military, next time possibly even against officers in active duty if the secular establishment persists in its attempt to remove the party from government. It is a dangerous strategy, which risks provoking the military into action.
Early elections may offer a way out of the impasse. Opinion polls indicate that the successor to the AKP is unlikely to repeat the electoral success of 2007. Indeed, many people voted for the AKP in 2007 mainly on the basis of its economic record and because of the unpalatable character of the opposition. But at present, there is a widespread feeling that the AKP has mishandled its public mandate. The military and other secular forces are pinning their hopes on the emergence of a new, centrist formation.