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Political Role of the Military

In the first seven decades since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, six of the nation's nine presidents had military backgrounds. Until 1950 Ataturk and his successor and closest military associate, Inönü , ruled what was an essentially a one-party political system with a strong martial flavor. Ataturk encouraged the military to abjure politics, but the armed forces intervened on three occasions--in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Although they did so under different circumstances in each case, their justification was their sworn duty to uphold national unity and the democratic order.

By dint of the influence it has exerted on politics since the early days of the Turkish republic, the military constitutes the country's most important interest group. Atatürk and his principal allies all were career officers during the final years of the Ottoman Empire. Although Atatürk subsequently endeavored to separate the military from political affairs, he nevertheless considered the army to be the "intelligentsia of the Turkish nation" and "the guardian of its ideals." By the time of Atatürk's death in 1938, the military had internalized a view of itself as a national elite responsible for protecting the Six Arrows of Kemalism.

Prior to 1960, the military worked behind the scenes to ensure that the country adhered to the guidelines of the Kemalist principles. However, in 1960 senior officers were so alarmed by government policies they perceived as deviating from Kemalism that they intervened directly in the political process by overthrowing the elected government and setting up a military regime. The military saw its mission as putting the country back on the correct path of Kemalism. Believing by October 1961 that this goal had been achieved, the officers returned to the barracks, whence they exercised oversight of civilian politicians.

The 1960 coup demonstrated the military's special status as an interest group autonomous -- if it chose to be -- from the government. On two subsequent occasions, in 1971 and 1980, the military again intervened to remove a government it perceived as violating Kemalist principles. The military regime of 1980-83 was the longest lasting, and represented the armed forces' most serious effort to transform traditional political behavior. The changes the regime introduced were intended to break what had become a cycle of decennial military interventions. The constitution introduced by the coup leaders in 1982, which forbade political activism in the universities and trade unions, abolished pre-existing parties, and banned political activity by pre-1980 party leaders, was the centerpiece of the military's efforts to curtail the factionalism and polarization that had stalemated the previous civilian government.

The leader of the 1980-83 junta, General Kenan Evren, remained as president after the return of civilian government, but the generals disavowed any desire for a continuing political role for the military. The public failed to respond to Evren's appeal to vote for the party favored by the generals, the Nationalist Democracy Party (Milliyetei Demokrasi Partisi -- MDP). A new grouping of retired officers and other leading citizens, the MDP had the same interests and goals as the military regime. Although disappointed by the party's lack of success, military leaders established good working relations with the victorious Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi--ANAP) of Turgut Özal. By promptly relinquishing control over public life, the military preserved its reputation as the ultimate protector of Turkish democratic institutions.

On two occasions, Özal prevailed when differences arose with the armed forces. In 1987, as prime minister, he overrode the military's choice of an army commander as the new chief of the General Staff, reportedly out of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the campaign against the Kurdish insurgency. In 1990, after Özal became president, the chief of staff resigned as a result of undisclosed disagreements assumed to have sprung from Özal's activist stance against Iraq's takeover of Kuwait but did not make a public issue of his difference with Özal.

From a career point of view, it was said to be unwise for an officer to express opinions that can be construed as liberal or otherwise unorthodox. The armed forces have shown particular sensitivity to the threat of radical Islamism to military order. In 1991 the general staff disclosed that in the preceding decade 357 officers and seventy-one noncommissioned officers (NCOs) had been dismissed on charges of involvement in extreme leftist or separatist (presumably Kurdish) activities. During the same period, thirty-seven officers and 188 NCOs were discharged for involvement in extreme rightist or Islamist activities.

The 1980 coup resulted in a longer transition period to civilian government and the imposition of more extensive restrictions on political rights than had the earlier interventions. At the start of 1995, some fourteen years after the coup, senior officers in the armed services still expected the civilian president and Council of Ministers to heed their advice on matters they considered pertinent to national security. For instance, the military defined many domestic law-and-order issues as falling within the realm of national security and thus both formulated and implemented certain policies that the government was expected to approve.

Since the military coup of 1960, Turkish politics have been characterized by two opposing visions of government. According to the "rule from above" view, which has been dominant among the military elite and some of the civilian political elite, government was an instrument for implementing the enduring principles of Kemalism. Thus, if a government fails to carry out this mandate, it must be replaced by those who are the guardians of Atatürk's legacy, which was identified as synonymous with Turkish nationalism. In contrast, the "rule from below" view, which predominates among more populist-oriented politicians and thinkers, tends to regard government as an instrument for protecting the civic rights and individual freedoms of Turkish citizens. Thus, if elected leaders fail in their responsibilities, they should be voted out of office.

Supporters of the first view tend to interpret democracy as a political order in which all Turks share common goals and national unity was not disrupted by partisan politics. When they perceive partisan politics as threatening this democratic ideal, they back military intervention as a corrective measure. Those favoring rule from below tend to accept diversity of opinion, and its organized expression through competitive political parties, as normal in a healthy democracy. These two very different conceptions of government have contributed significantly to Turkey's political history since 1960, an era in which periods of parliamentary democracy have alternated with periods of military authoritarianism.

The legacy of military intervention, in particular a general fear among politicians that it may recur, has adversely affected democratic practices in Turkey. For instance, the successor civilian governments have lifted only gradually the harsh restrictions imposed on political rights by the 1980-83 regime. In early 1995, various restrictions on the formation of political parties and free association remained in effect; civilians accused of "crimes against the state" continued to be remanded to military courts for detention, interrogation, and trial.

Imbued with the concept that its mission was to safeguard Ataturk's heritage, the military establishment has often shown its impatience with political bickering and compromises that appear to slight Kemalist objectives. Civilian politicians indifferent to those goals or embracing other ideologies are viewed with suspicion or even as subversive. Much of the military education system was concerned with instilling the Kemalist spirit through study of the 1919-22 War of Independence, the concept of patriotism as embodied by Ataturk, and the values and principles of Kemalism, particularly the "Six Arrows" of secularism, republicanism, populism, etatism, reformism, and nationalism, as guidance for the future of the Turkish state.

A democratic system was fully accepted as the best form of government by the professional military. However, young career officers are indoctrinated with the view that the proper working of democracy demands discipline, organization, constructiveness, unity of purpose, and rejection of self-interest. Thus, the military had little tolerance of politicians whom it perceives as putting personal ambition before the good of the state or of political parties or groups acting in ways it considers to be dictated by a struggle for power and economic advantage.

The National Security Council (NSC), which according to the constitution has only an advisory role, is customarily the formal venue at which the Turkish military sets guidelines and, if deemed necessary, issues warnings to the elected government about what is fair or foul in Turkish politics. For instance, after the rise to power of Turkey's Islamist Refah Party-led government in 1996, the NSC let it be known publicly that Islamic "reactionaries" constituted a primary threat to national security (alongside the then-active armed insurgency of the PKK). A similar warning about the threat of "nationalist mafia" was issued in 1999, after the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) joined the coalition then led by Bulent Ecevit.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, which faced a wave of street protests and riots, moved on 27 June 2013 to amend an article of the Armed Forces charter cited by generals in the past to justify coups as defense of public order. Article 35 of the charter was promulgated after the 1960 coup that resulted in the hanging of a prime minister. The amendment would replace the declared duty to “protect and watch over the republic” - a reference that for many Turks would imply strictly enforcing a secular order - with a more limited obligation to defend “the Turkish homeland against foreign threats”.

The military is especially concerned that AK might try to amend or re-write the 1982 constitution to change the "unamendable" preamble and articles 1-4, which are designed to freeze Turkey within narrow, if ambiguously defined,"secular" and Ataturkist bounds.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2016 15:42:24 ZULU