Listen to this article
Since the republic of Turkey was established in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and fellow generals, governments have been under the tutelage of the army. Until recently there was widespread acceptance of this by the public and political leaders. Polls consistently showed the army to be the most trusted institution in Turkey. When the army raised its voice, politicians listened.
There have been four military interventions since 1960. All were bloodless, though the aftermath of the 1980 coup was briefly violent. The generals turned over power to politicians in a short time, twice after sponsoring new constitutions and in all cases ensuring that the presidency went to former military men or personalities close to the army’s thinking. The president kept channels of dialogue open between civilians and the army and ensured that secularism, one of the basic tenets of the constitution, was not violated.
To anyone living under a western democracy the generals’ tendency to interfere may seem undemocratic. But arguably the ousted politicians were more undemocratic than both the generals and the means they employed to get rid of them. The first coup, in 1960, was staged to overthrow a government that had become corrupt and despotic, had crushed the opposition and muzzled the media. In 1980 the army seized power in near-civil war conditions caused by irresponsible politicians and a deepening left-right divide. The 1997 intervention was to get rid of an Islamist-dominated government bent on changing the secular course of Turkey.
Turkey is now experiencing the latest chapter in this army-civilian confrontation. The election of a new president by the national assembly has turned into a clash of wills between Islamists, represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), and the army and secular establishment.
The issue is vital because the presidency has strong powers. It is the last bastion of secularism not captured by the AKP. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, can veto laws, call early elections, appoint senior judges and university rectors and has to ratify all senior appointments to the bureaucracy. With the presidency in AKP hands, Mr Erdogan’s control of the state mechanism would be total. He has already filled the top ranks of the bureaucracy with pious Muslims, often in total disregard to experience, competence or good governance.
The presidency would allow him to appoint Islamist judges and university rectors and, probably as a last step, to fire troublesome generals, completing the process of bringing the state mechanism under total AKP control.
Mr Erdogan himself coveted the job but was forced to step back because he feared the reaction of the secular establishment, including the army, would be ferocious. Instead he nominated Abdullah Gul, his closest friend and foreign minister. For the secular establishment, Mr Erdogan and Mr Gul are the two sides of the same coin. The army deplored Mr Gul’s candidacy and expressed its concern at the drift away from secularism under Mr Erdogan’s administration. Mr Erdogan issued a statement in effect telling the generals they are civil servants who take their orders from the prime minister, not vice versa. This was the first time the army was being openly defied. Mr Erdogan seems determined not to yield and, for once and all, resolve the battle of wills between civilians and soldiers in favour of the former.
The constitutional court cancelled the first round of the ballot and ruled that a two-thirds quorum is needed before balloting begins. This could have allowed Mr Erdogan to find a compromise candidate. Instead, he decided to raise the stakes. He called for an early election and proposed a constitutional change that would allow the president to be elected by direct popular vote. The AKP would be expected to win both the election and the presidential vote.
Is Mr Erdogan, then, a champion of democracy? Or is he – as feared by the army and secularists – planning to use his popularity to implement a secret Islamist agenda? Is Turkish democracy about to leap forward or backwards?
It is possible to state with certainty that the generals have no intention of taking over the country and running it themselves. Their intervention has met with universal disapproval. The majority of Turks want neither a coup nor an Islamic Turkey. Their misfortune is that the opposition is filled with bankrupt parties and mediocre leaders who stand no chance of replacing the AKP.
It is impossible to say with the same certainty that Mr Erdogan does not intend to turn Turkey into a “light” Iran if the AKP renews its mandate at the next election and captures the presidency. The strongest ray of hope lies in the huge rallies in Ankara and Istanbul held by Turks calling for a liberal democracy. They were the biggest demonstrations in Turkish history. The demonstrators were not wearing orange scarves. But it was impossible not to think of the crowds that brought about change in Ukraine and hope something similar might be under way.
The writer is a columnist for Milliyet
Get alerts on Opinion when a new story is published