From Military Tutelage to Civilian Authoritarianism?

Opinion in Turkey remains divided over whether the recent remand of a former chief of General Staff on charges of coup plotting represents a further blow against an older, less democratic order, or a move by the incumbent government to further consolidate its power. Fatma Kayabal investigates

By Fatma Kayabal

The arrest of Gen. İlker Başbuğ, a former chief of Turkey's powerful armed forces failed to stir up the political turmoil some expected; rather, it has accelerated existing discussions on the army's often dominant role in politics. Gen. Başbuğ was taken into custody in early January on charges of involvement in an Internet campaign to discredit Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

The arrest of Gen. Başbuğ, who retired in 2010, marks the highest-ranking scalp claimed to date in the investigation of the Ergenekon network, an ultra-nationalist group accused by prosecutors of conspiring to topple the government.

Rather than part of an ongoing power struggling between the AK Party and the military, many prominent analysts, among them Professor Mehmet Altan, suggest that the arrest is part of Turkey's transformation into a more modern state.

photo: AP
Is General Başbuğ's arrest a sign of the emancipation of civilian politics, or the beginning of a new kind of authoritarianism? Once again, Turkey is divided

​​Professor Altan underlined that the Turkish Republic was established by the military and bureaucratic elite in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The statist republic they established was built on the ruins of the devastated economy of the Ottoman Empire, so these elites also created a bourgeoisie dependant on the state – one which naturally supported military and bureaucratic tutelage.

Altan added that, from the 1960 coup onwards, the military and the bureaucratic elite, together with the bourgeoisie they created, organized military interventions every time they felt threatened.

The military's ignorance of social realities

However, in parallel both Turkey and the world entered a rapid transformation process, one which led to emergence of a new bourgeoisie based in Anatolia, one which owes little to the state and has challenged its irrational control over every aspect of daily life in the country. This new class also created its own political party: the AK Party.

"The aim of this new circle is to integrate into the global economy. The world also wants a model; a modern, democratic country but still Muslim," Altan told Qantara, adding that the Turkish military has been unable to analyse this transformation, entering into a power conflict with the government.

However, he added, this power struggle also is set to settle accounts between the Turkish conservatives and the military, which sees itself as the guarantor of Turkey's founding philosophy of secularism.

Turkey's military, NATO's second-largest army, carried out three coups between 1960 and 1980, ousting a further government from power on 28 February 1997.

Necmettin Erbakan (photo: AP)
The 1997 coup against Necmettin Erbakan and his Islamic Welfare Party introduced a series of harsh restrictions on religious life in Turkey

​​Uneasy with the existence of a conservative party – the now-defunct Welfare Party (RP), influential members of which later went on to form the AK Party – in government, the General Staff sought ways to do away with them. The National Security Council (MGK) made several decisions during a meeting on 28 February and presented them to then-Prime Minister and RP leader Necmettin Erbakan for approval.

Erbakan acquiesced to their demands and subsequently resigned. The coup introduced a series of harsh restrictions on religious life, with including a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf by those in public office or on university campuses. The military was purged of members with suspected ties to religious groups.

According to Ahmet Taşgetiren, a columnist for the Bugün daily, it is the perpetrators of the 28 February process that are today on trial in the Ergenekon case. "Accusations currently directed at Ergenekon suspects were like parts of the established system in the 28 February process.

Reactionaryism was one of the 'internal threats' mentioned on the MGK agenda. This has now changed. Reactionaryism is no longer considered an internal threat. This change is probably the most significant step taken for the democratization of Turkey," the columnist stated.

However the military's sphere of influence and control still extends to almost all areas of civilian life, thanks to laws, regulations, bylaws, protocols and decrees that have the power of law. The General Staff, which is subordinate to the Prime Ministry, but not to the Ministry of Defence, is like an autonomous institution.

Legal limbo

The infamous Article 35 of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) Internal Service Code that is believed to underpin the military's readiness to stage coups d'état reads:

photo: AP
Critics of Turkey's government politics say that curbing the role of the army is not synonymous with democratization. Military parade at the Atatürk mausoleum

​​"The duty of the TSK is to protect and watch over the Turkish motherland and the Turkish Republic as delineated by the Constitution." Though the article does not contain a clear provision facilitating military coups, it has frequently been used to legitimize them.

Some analysts, like Nuray Mert of Milliyet daily, underline that the new relations between the army and the civilians have not yet been institutionalized. Mert also noted that curbing the role of the army is not synonymous with democratization.

"To end military tutelage over the civilian politics is a necessary condition for democratization, but it is not the sole criterion," Mert told Qantara. "A democratization process that aims only to curb the power of the military includes the danger of yielding to authoritarian civil politics."

Fatma Kayabal

© 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/