The complicated history of the relationship between military and the civilian leadership in Turkey

When in July 2016 the news that an attempt of a military coup had begun in Turkey, it seemed like a headline from the past: military takeover of power had become an almost routine phenomenon in Turkey in the second half of the previous century.

Text: Mikayel Zolyan

Protectors of Ataturk’s Legacy
In order to understand the role of the military in Turkey one has to go back to the founder of the modern Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk himself was a military man and he came to power as a result of a military success. Though as soon as he came to power Ataturk resigned from the military and ruled the country as a civilian leader, throughout his rule he had a special relationship with the army.
Ataturk carried out reforms which, as he claimed were based on 6 principles, which included republicanism, nationalism, populism, etatism, secularism, and “Revolutionism”. Of these, secularism, or, to use the term most often used in Turkey, laicism, was probably the most difficult to implement, given the Turkish context: separation of state and religion and removing religion from public sphere was not going to be an easy task. Turkey had by that time become an almost exclusively Muslim country, as most religious minorities had disappeared as a result of genocide, ethnic cleansing and population exchange.  Moreover, for ages the Ottoman sultan was also considered the Khalifa, the religious leader of all Muslims, and principles of Sharia were embedded in the Ottoman system of government, though they were not always strictly enforced.
Ataturk’s efforts of secularization of the Turkish society were met with resistance, active or passive, and often had to be implemented through coercion and violence. Even though Ataturk was able to achieve a certain degree of secularization and westernization in the society, and in many ways Turkey became quite distinct from other Muslim countries of the Middle East, it was obvious that these changes could easily be reversed. Whatever, the limitations imposed on Islam, the majority of Turks remained devout Muslims, and Ataturk’s reforms remained quite unpopular, especially in the provincial regions of Central and Eastern Turkey, in contrast to the large cities and coastal towns of Western Turkey. It was obvious that without pressure from the state the Muslim way of life, which Ataturk fought so hard, could make a comeback. Therefore, the Turkish military was given the task of preserving the secular character of Turkish state and preventing secular Islam from becoming a political force in the country.

This has been a relatively easy task as long as Turkey remained an authoritarian regime, under Ataturk himself, and his successor İsmet İnönü, who, by the way, also was a general, credited with
winning the most decisive battle in the war against the Greeks. However, in the aftermath of the 2nd World War Turkey felt pressure to democratize, especially as it became part of NATO, a military block that presented itself as the defender of “the free world”. İnönü and Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party, which continued Ataturk’s policies, managed to win the first supposedly “democratic” elections in 1946. However, in the next election, which was much more democratic they lost to the recently established Democratic Party of Adnan Menderes. Thus, in effect Menderes became the first prime-minister of Turkey, who came to power as a result of democratic elections. He also became the first prime-minister of Turkey to be deposed in the military coup.

The Rise and Fall of Adnan Menderes
Today, when we look back at the story of Adnan Menderes, it is hard not to notice some similarities with Erdogan. Though, Menderes was not considered an Islamist (which would have probably been impossible in the political context of the time), just like Erdogan he appealed to the previously disenfranchised population of provincial Turkey, who also happened to be more religious.
Naturally, Menderes’ policies reflected the preferences of his voters, which meant slowly reversing back some of the secular reforms of Ataturk and easing some of the restrictions that he had placed on religion on Turkey. He also tried to limit the influence that the military had on the affairs in the country. Soon it became obvious that the army, placed by Ataturk into the position of the guarantor of the Turkish political system of the Turkish state, was not going to tolerate this.
However, the tension with the military and attempts to win over the conservative and religious voters were not the only reason for Mederes’ downfall. In another obvious parallel to Erdogan Menderes started out as a democrat, who saw as his main objective the dismantling the authoritarian system left as legacy from Ataturk, but soon it became obvious that Menderes had a strong authoritarian streak. He tried to control the media and started repressions against his political opponents, including the Republican People’s Party. Minorities also did not feel safe, especially in the wake of the pogrom of 1955 in Istanbul, when mostly Greeks, but also some Armenians and other minorities were targeted. To many in Turkey it was obvious that the country, which had only recently become more or less democratic, was headed toward a new dictatorship.

Thus, Menderes had managed to alienate not just the military, but other political forces and various groups of population. Probably, that was one of the reasons, why the coup d’etat, which was started by a group of mid-level officers proved successful. On May 27, 1960 the military arrested Menderes and his allies, and created a body called “Committee of National Unity”, which assumed the power in the country, under the leadership of general Cemal Gürsel. Several thousand military officers and state officials were purged, some were arrested, and Menderes, together with two of his close associates was tried for treason and hanged. Thus he became not only the first Turkish prime-minister to be deposed by coup, but also the only one that lost his life as a result of it.
Within the junta there were two factions: the more liberal one believed that the aim of the coup was to restore democracy, therefore, the military should withdraw from politics and allow the return of political parties. Another one, which consisted of ultranationalists like Alparslan Türkeş, who was later to become the founder of the infamous ultra-nationalist group “Grey Wolves”, believed in preserving the military dictatorship. Ultimately, in 1961 new elections were held and political parties assumed government. However, the military also promulgated a new constitution, which contained specific provisions about the role of military as guarantors of secularism and democracy, thus creating a basis for further interventions.

Déjà vu: Prime-Ministers vs. Generals
In the subsequent decades the pattern established by the 1960 coup was repeated several times. After the coup the military ruled the country for certain time, then a civilian government would return, which in some time would run into trouble with the military, leading to another coup, and then the whole cycle would be repeated again. Thus, in 1965 Süleyman Demirel became prime-minister, who carried out successful economic reforms. However, the 1960s were a turbulent time all over the world and Turkey was not an exception. Various leftist, Islamist and rightist groups clashed with each other, many of them using violence and terrorism. The situation in the country was spiraling out of the control, and the military took power again on March 12 1971.
This time the coup was virtually bloodless. It seemed that Turkey’s politicians had learned the lesson that it was better not to mess with the military. All it took was a memorandum by the head of the armed forces that demanded to form a new cabinet that would rule in accordance with the Ataturk’s principles. Demirel resigned and a new cabinet under direct influence of the military was formed. State of military rule was declared in Turkey, repressions, mostly against liberals and leftists, followed. Before the military returned power to the next elected government, they added new changes to the constitution, which further enhanced the position of the military.
The 1971 coup did not solve the contradictions that had led to it. The bitter struggle between the radical left and the radical right, the latter connected to some groups within the military and security services, continued throughout the 1970s. Both sides formed death squads and assassinated their opponents. A new dimension of the conflict was becoming obvious as various Kurdish groups, especially the newly emerged PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party, turned to violence in order to advance the rights of the Kurdish minority. It was in this period, that the actions of Armenian Diaspora militant groups like ASALA took place, which though were not large-scale, received wide resonance and unnerved Turkish government, since they targeted diplomats and other Turkish state officials.
It was against this background that on September 12, 1980 a new coup took place. The military immediately initiated a wide crackdown on various militant organizations, both on the left and on the right, including the infamous ultra-nationalist “Grey Wolves”. Of course, as it usually happens, it was not just the radicals and terrorists who were targeted, but also critics of the government, dissidents, human right activists: thousands of people were arrested or forced into exile, hundreds died in Turkish prisons. However, the military succeeded in stabilizing the domestic political life in Turkey. The cabinet of Turgut Özal, which was formed as the result of 1983 elections, succeeded in bringing about economic reforms. Thus, in the 1980s Turkey became a relatively stable country with a fast growing economy. On the downside, however, the military crackdown exacerbated the Kurdish issue, leading to what became almost a full-scale real war with Kurdish fighters in the South-East.

The Revenge of the Islamists
The last time the Turkish military performed a successful coup d’etat was in 1997. It became known as the “Postmodern coup”. Technically, it was not even a real coup, all it took was a memorandum by National Security Council, a body dominated by the military. In 1997 Turkey was ruled by Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of a moderately Islamist “Party of Prosperity”. Erbakan started removing some of the restrictions on religion in the country, reversing some of the most sacrosanct rules of Ataturk’s secularism. Naturally, the army as the guardian of secularism, was suspicious of Erbakan’s intentions from the very beginning. After an anti-Israel protest with Islamist slogans was organized in one of municipalities of Ankara, the National Security Council, issued a memorandum by the, which the generals demanded from Erbakan to stick to Ataturk’s principles of secularism. Erbakan got the message: he resigned. Erbakan’s Party of Prosperity was banned and Erbakan himself was banned from political activities.

However, in the long run, that did not help the military: the Turkish military were soon to be faced with a more serious opponent. The closed Party of Prosperity became the basis for a new party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Erbakan was replaced by his disciple, a young and charismatic Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In 2002 AKP won the elections and a year later Erdogan became the prime-minister. AKP’s approach to politics was quite innovative: its policies blended democratic reform and a moderate Islamist agenda. In his efforts to curb the influence of the military Erdogan cited the need to adhere to the democratic standards of the EU, which Turkey has been desperately trying to join since the 1980s. This new approach left the military few space for maneuver. Slowly but surely Erdogan was depriving the military of the leverages over political life in Turkey. Moreover, plans for military takeover were discovered by the police and special services (the “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” affairs), many military were deprived of their posts, some were arrested. Constitution was changed to reflect the primacy of the civilian government. Even some surviving participants of the past military coups were persecuted, including the leader of the 1980 coup and former president Kenan Evren, was convicted in 2012, when he was 95 years old.
However, the triumph for democracy soon turned into something else. Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies were becoming obvious as he consolidated power and limited democratic rights and freedoms. While the first years of AKP were an opening for minorities, including Kurds, Armenians and others, today the Kurdish regions descended into civil conflict after negotiations with the Kurds led nowhere. The secular Kemalists unhappy about the Islamization of Turkish society, the liberals and minorities were unhappy about the curbing of democratic freedoms. Relations with the neighbors and allies soured. In foreign policy Erdogan managed to fall out with such important partners as Israel and Russia, failed to resolve the Cyprus issue and the issue of relations with Armenia, and got involved in a military conflict with Syria. Human rights issues led to complications in the relations with EU and USA.

As it seemed that Erdogan was repeating the path of Menderes, alienating friends both in Turkey and abroad, some forces within the military felt it was time to act. However, as we know, the calculations of the military proved wrong. Turkey had changed significantly since the last time a successful military coup had taken place. First of all, Erdogan had succeeded in weakening the military and creating his own loyal forces, particularly within the police and the security services. Besides, the situation proved that thousands of Erdogan’s supporters were ready to go out in the streets and risk their lives fighting the military. As for Erdogan’s enemies for most of them a military takeover was just as unacceptable as the continuation of the rule by Erdogan: few people were ready to accept the replacement of an authoritarian, but democratically elected leader, by an unelected military dictatorship. As a result, the coup not only failed, but it provided Erdogan the pretext to deal a decisive blow to all those who opposed his power, including the military. The scale of the crackdown remains unprecedented in the history of Turkish republic: the Turkish military will probably never be able to completely recover from that blow. In an especially dark twist of fate, Erdogan’s supporters are demanding to bring back the capital punishment: the organizers of the military coup should be hanged: it seems that the history of the Turkish republic has come full cycle since 1960.