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

By Kuru, Ahmet T. | Insight Turkey, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Kuru, Ahmet T., Insight Turkey


Military interventions in politics--whether in the form of coups d'etat 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, Suleyman 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 Erdogan 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 Gul 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 Ataturk'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, Gul was elected as the president.

The failure of the e-coup attempt meant the beginning of the declining military tutelage over Turkish politics. …

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