The Military in Politics
by David Capezza
Summer 2009, pp. 13-23
Analysts generally consider military influence in politics and society to be a critical impediment to the development of democratic political and civil rights and freedoms. According to Freedom House, for example, greater military involvement in government politics decreases civil liberties and political rights in any given country; this infringes on a government's ability to develop democracy.
In 1826, Sultan Mahmud II broke the power of the sultan's guards, the Janissaries, enabling him to reform the military and begin Westernization of the empire.
The Turkish military has used this sense of constitutional authorization to justify interference in the political realm, on some occasions. It seized power in 1960 and 1980 when polarization and economic instability paralyzed the country's political system, and it also forced the resignation of governments in 1971 and 1997. While the Turkish constitution certainly does not endorse coups, Turkish popular distrust of politicians has generally led the public to support military action.
This constitutional role began to unravel, however, in
September 2001, when the Turkish parliament amended the constitution to ensure
that the Constitutional Court (Anayasa Mahkemesi) review any decisions
involving maintenance of freedoms and allegations of unconstitutionality.
Therefore, the military may not act upon allegations of unconstitutional acts
until there has been prior court review. Other structural factors augment the
Turkish military's role. On July 23, 2003, the Grand National Assembly passed a
reform package which called for a civilian to lead the powerful and
historically military-led National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Kurulu,
MGK), a body which advisesbut, more realistically, directsthe president in
the formation of his security policies, policies which in Turkey traditionally
span internal and external threats. On August 17, 2004, President Ahmet Necdet
Sezer appointed former ambassador to the
The Ottoman Military Tradition
The augmented role of
While there was general recognition in Ottoman domains that the Empire had to modernize, there was also public criticism that the sultan's reforms subordinated Ottoman tradition to European ways. The reforms of Mahmud II may not have won broad public support, but they did nevertheless sow the seeds of liberty in Ottoman society. With ideas of political and social liberty beginning to permeate the Ottoman world, a number of Ottoman nationalists and government bureaucrats formed a group in 1865 called the Young Ottomans, which sought to transform the sultanate into a constitutional republic with an elected parliament. The Young Ottomans used the printing press to disseminate works on liberty, justice, and freedom.
They made halting progress. In 1877, for example, the
The only institution that could protect the populace against arbitrary rule was the military. Although it had been able to overthrow successfully the power vested in the sultan at certain timesas when the Janissaries rose up against Sultan Selim III's (r. 1789-1807) military reforms in 1807it required the support of the populace, something illustrated by the failure of an 1826 revolt. Conversely, the Young Ottomans, while generally supported by the populace, lacked the most crucial element to implement their ideas: the support of the military. As Ismail Kemal, a leader of the Albanian independence movement in 1912, stated, "By propaganda and publications alone a revolution cannot be made. It is therefore necessary to work to ensure the participation of the armed forces in the revolutionary movement."
Recognizing the need to have the support of both the military and the people to facilitate a successful revolution, in 1906, a group of young military officers, including Mustafa Kemal, who would later take the single name Atatürk, created a revolutionary organization called Vatan ve Hürriyet (Fatherland and Freedom) to advance political revolution and reform in the Empire. They kept their group distinct from civilian groups such as unionists and liberals who feared a concentration of power in the central government.
On July 23, 1908, Sultan Abdul Hamid acquiesced to the revolutionaries' demands and ushered in a new era of constitutionalism. However, the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti (Committee of Union and Progress, CUP) was able to suppress the internal military mutiny and restore order within the ranks by sending an army to the capital to end the instability. By April 27, 1909, with the accession of Abdul Hamid's brother Mehmed V (r. 1909-1918) to the throne, the army effectively ensured that it would be involved in the establishment of a new constitution and would inevitably remain involved in politics for an extended period of time. However, the decision to return authority to civilian hands set a precedent for what would soon become the military-political symbiosis that distinguishes modern Turkey.
Atatürk and After
In the wake of the Ottoman Empire's defeat in World War I,
the Allied powers, including
The military founded the
Atatürk formalized a separation of the military from
politics. Article 148 of the Military Penal Code prohibited serving military
officers from political party membership or activities and declared that the military
would be neutral in its support of the political system. Simultaneously,
however, the article empowered the military to act as "the vanguard of
revolution" with the right to "intervene in the political sphere if
the survival of the state would otherwise be left in grave jeopardy."
Article 34 of the Army Internal Service Law of 1935 stipulated that the
military was constitutionally obligated to protect and defend the Turkish
homeland and the republic, a clause interpreted by generations of Turkish
officials to allow military leaders to intercede whenever the internal politics
Atatürk did not foresee military involvement in day-to-day
politics, and he certainly did not tolerate military interference with his agenda.
Rather, having arisen from the military, he used it as a power base from which
to enforce his reforms. Under Atatürk's successor, İsmet İnönü, the
question over the military's future role in politics gained greater
significance. The first question to arise was the role of the chief of staff
who, under Atatürk, reported directly to the prime minister rather than the
minister of defense. Given
After a successful election in July 1946, İnönü and the
Republican People's Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) won majority support
although the Democrat Party (Demokrat Parti, DP) established itself as a
serious minority party. The Democrats dominated the May 1950 elections, winning
470 seats to the CHP's 69. İnönü stepped down, and power passed to Prime
Minister Adnan Menderes and President Celal Bayar. They relaxed restrictions on
Islam's role in society, encouraged private enterprise in order to hasten
economic development, and implemented social welfare programs. After winning a
huge majority in the May 1954 elections,
1960, 1971, 1980: Military Coups and Intervention
In April 1960, amidst student protests and unrest between
the government and the opposition parties, the military launched a coup to
restore political and social order, installing a Committee on National Unity
led by General Cemal Gürsel. On May 27, they arrested Bayar,
Turkish society, however, remained unstable through much of
the 1960s as the debate about
On March 12, 1971, the Turkish military sent a memorandum to President Cevdet Sunay and Prime Minister Demirel insisting on the need to appoint a new government to calm society and to resolve continued economic problems. In the two years that followed, debate over the future of the republic raged among the political parties and between civil and military institutions. The successor government to Demirel's collapsed after Prime Minister Nihat Erim was unable to bridge the differences between his government, the Justice Party (Adalet Partisi), and the Republican Peoples Party. After the March 1973 parliamentary elections, the political parties elected retired Admiral Fahri Korutürk as president on April 6. After the precedents of Gürsel and Sunay, the rise of a retired military official to the presidency seemed natural; after all, the military was seen as above politics and, in the Turkish system, the president is traditionally a consensus figure who can rise above political party antics. Nevertheless, the legacy of the 1971 intervention is mixed. While the military did force the government to reshuffle, its goal of establishing a "powerful and credible government" did not succeed, given that four weak coalition governments rose and fell in the thirty-one months following the memorandum.
Up to the 1983 elections, primary power rested in the military leadership and was channeled through the National Security Council under General Kenan Evren. The military dominated most aspects of society, taking strict control of universities, dismissing or transferring academics, depoliticizing the public service system, and dissolving existing political parties. In essence, the military enforced martial law to ensure public safety.  The military, once again, issued a new constitution. In 1983, Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi, ANAP) assumed power with Evren serving as president.
While many academics and Western diplomats view military
interventions in black and white terms as always antithetical to democracy,
throughout these formative years of Turkish democracy, this was not the case.
Nilüfer Göle, director of studies at the école des Hautes études in the Centre
d'Analyse et d'Intervention Sociologiques in
Erbakan and His Legacy
Following the coup of 1980, the military stayed out of politics and, indeed, under Özal, who served as prime minister from 1983-89 and president from 1989-93, lost some of its political autonomy, even as it remained free from civilian control. Only when Prime Minister Tansu Çiller began to lose control during an economic and social crisis in 1994 (during which inflation reached 100 percent) did the military again begin to involve itself actively in politics.
In 1996, after winning just 21 percent of the vote the previous year, Erbakan became prime minister as the leader of a coalition between Çiller's True Path Party (Doğru Yol Partisi, DYP) and his own newly-formed Welfare Party (Refah Partisi, RP). He was an ardent Islamist, but while he was disliked by the military, the Turkish General Staff did not seek to prevent his accession, both because the Turkish military does not intervene as lightly as some of its detractors suggest and because, holding 158 of 550 seats in parliament, his party could not rule without its Kemalist coalition partners.
Almost immediately, however, the Erbakan government began to
support a strong pro-religious platform and a reorientation of foreign policy
as Erbakan visited
Erdoğan, a former mayor of
The AKP's rise had less to do with its Islamist agenda than
with public disgust over corruption scandals among the more traditional parties
amidst the November 2000 banking and February 2001 currency crises. On a
single day on February 22, 2001, the Turkish lira lost one-third of its
value. Erdoğan is a skilled politician. He moderated both his and his
party's image to ensure that the AKP would not meet the fate of Refah or
Fazilet. As public confidence in Ecevit and his coalition partners waned, Erdoğan
sought to appeal to a constituency beyond the AKP's Islamist base. A July 2000
poll conducted by the
The Rise of Erdoğan
And so it came to be. In 2002, the AKP gained power with 34
percent of the vote. Because five other parties fell just short of the ten
percent threshold necessary to enter parliament, this propelled the AKP's grip
on parliament to a clear majority with 363 seats in the Grand National
Assembly, the largest majority in
The AKP hewed a moderate foreign policy line when it assumed
office. Unlike Erbakan, Erdoğan embraced the European Union accession
process. For the AKP, this was a brilliant tactical move. By blurringrather
than sharply definingthe line between pro-Western orientation and Islamism,
Erdoğan provided his party with plausible deniability about its goals; it
could be all things to all people. In Central Anatolia, its deputies could
preach Islamism while party officials convinced Turkish businessmen in
Western-oriented cities such as
As Copenhagen Criteria reforms weakened the power of the military in internal Turkish affairs, Erdoğan has advanced an Islamist agenda which has altered Turkish society. The most prominent example of the AKP's Islamism has been its argument that Turkish women should have a legal right to wear veils in schools and public institutions, a policy traditional Kemalists and the military consider a symbolic affront to the Turkish government's secularism. Here, ironically, Erdoğan has clashed with European officials. After the European Court of Human Rights backed the ban on head scarves in public schools, the prime minister complained, "It is wrong that those who have no connection to this field [of religion] make such a decision without consulting Islamic scholars."
However, the AKP's attempts to roll back the separation between mosque and state involve more than the head scarf. In May 2006, the Erdoğan-appointed chief negotiator for European Union accession talks ordered state officials to cease defining Turkey's educational system as secular. Indeed, Erdoğan moved to equate Imam Hatip religious school degrees with those of public high schools, thereby enabling Islamist students to enter the university and qualify for government jobs without serious study of basic Western principles. When university presidents complained about growing AKP political interference and Islamist influence in their institutions, Erdoğan ordered the police to detain the most outspoken university rector on corruption charges that later proved baseless.
Distrust of the AKP and its agenda solidified after a
gunman, reportedly upset with a ruling against the veil law, stormed the
Council of State, equivalent to the Supreme Court, and opened fire shouting,
"I am a soldier of God," killing one justice. Erdoğan
declined to attend the dead man's funeral. Both the President and Yaşar
Büyükanıt, chief of the Turkish General Staff, have warned publicly of
growing threats to secularism. On April 12, 2006, Sezer said, "Religious
fundamentalism has reached alarming proportions.
The military was, however, powerless to intervene, at least
compared to 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. On April 27, 2007, Büyükanıt held
a press conference to stress that the military wanted the next president of
Hours later, the Turkish General Staff posted a statement on its website declaring, "Some circles who have been carrying out endless efforts to disturb fundamental values of the republic of Turkey, especially secularism, have escalated their efforts recently," warning that the "fundamentalist understanding [of the government] was eroding the very foundation of the Turkish Republic and the ideas that it was founded upon." Rather than step aside with relative grace as had Erbakan, the AKP issued a rebuttal, reminding the military that in "democracies," the military does not intervene in the political process.
Islamists and many diplomats branded the military's statement as an "Internet coup," casting the military as aggressors, rather than defenders of a constitutional order violated by Erdoğan. After a constitutional battle over procedures, the AKP-dominated Grand National Assembly selected Gül as president, further consolidating the party's power and effectively eliminating any future presidential vetoes over concerns about the constitutionalism of AKP legislation.
Since winning a second term and consolidating control with 46.7 percent of the vote, Erdoğan has gone on the offensive. After surviving a judicial challenge which could have resulted in the disbandment of the AKP on questionable constitutional grounds, the AKP pushed forward with prosecutions on an alleged nationalist and Kemalist plot to cause chaos in order to provide an excuse for military intervention. AKP-led prosecutors and security forces have detained hundreds of journalists, retired military officers, political rivals, and academics. While, at its root, physical evidence exists to suggest some malfeasance on the part of radical Kemalists, there is little evidence to suggest a widespread plot.
The AKP, therefore, faces growing criticism that it is using the case as an excuse to intimidate or silence anyone who opposes its agenda. The importance of the so-called Ergenekon prosecutions, though, is to show just how little influence and control the military has over Turkish society. Simultaneously, should the Ergenekon prosecutions represent an internal putsch by Erdoğan against his and the AKP's opponents, the episode shows how unbalanced Turkish democracy can become when the military can no longer effectively act as a force for constitutionalism and reform.
The Military Exits?
Since the days of the Ottoman Empire and throughout the
history of the
Moreover, the military has, since the late nineteenth century, maintained the push towards modernization while continuing the tradition of the Ottoman and republican Turkish societies. Though the external environment has changed dramatically, the military has remained an anchor for society.
The EU accession process has driven reforms that have
weakened the military's internal role. While many democracy experts and leaders
of EU member states argue that the military should not have a role in internal
In essence, the military has acted as a guide to usher
Kemalist principles into full realization. This is not to say that the military
should continue to have a dominant role in perpetuity. However, failure to
recognize the military's unique and traditional role as the protector of the
public from any political party's undemocratic consolidation of power and as
the defender of the constitution is dangerous because it creates the
possibility that the checks and balances of Turkish society might collapse
without creation of a new system of supervision. As
David Capezza is a consultant for the Center for New
American Security in
 Freedom in the World, 2007 (
 Tim Jacoby, Social Power and the
 Levent Gönenc, "The 2001 Amendments to the 1982
 Serap Yazici, "A Guide to Turkish Public Law and
Legal Research: 10.2, The Constitutional Amendments of 2001 and 2004,"
GlobaLex, Hauser Global
 Serap Yazici, "A Guide to the Turkish Public Law
Order and Legal Research: The Constitutional Amendments of 2001 and 2004,"
GlobaLex, Hauser Global
 Sabah (
 Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern
 Ibid., 125-8.
 Ibid., p. 171.
 William Hale, Turkish Politics and the Role of the Military (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 16.
 Quoted in Lewis, The Emergence of Modern
 Alexander L. Macfie, The End of the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1923 (New York: Longman's, 1998), pp. 41-56.
 Metin Tamkoc, The Warrior Diplomats: Guardians of the
National Security and Modernization of
 Roderic H. Davidson,
 Tamkoc, The Warrior Diplomats, p. 28.
 Donald Everett Webster, The
 Ibid., pp. 163-71.
 Hale, Turkish Politics and the Role of the Military, pp. 72, 80.
 Ibid., p. 83.
 Walter Weiker, The Turkish Revolution, 1960-1961 (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1963), pp. 6-11.
 David Shankland, The
 Hale, Turkish Politics and the Role of the Military, pp. 175-9.
 Ibid., pp. 194-200.
 Ibid., pp. 207-8.
 Ibid., pp. 216-7;
 General Kenan Evren, quoted in Hale, Turkish Politics and the Role of the Military, p. 246.
 Nilüfer Göle, "Toward an Autonomization of Politics and Civil Society in Turkey," in Metin Heper and Ahmet Evin, eds, Politics in the Third Turkish Republic (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 213-22, quoted in Sylvia Kedourie, Seventy-Five Years of the Turkish Republic (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000), p. 141.
 Kedourie, Seventy-Five Years of the
 Ibid., pp. 136-9.
 Thomas Carroll, "
 Turkish Daily News (
 Soner Cagaptay, "Turkey Goes to the Polls: A Post-Mortem," Policywatch, no. 675, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., Nov. 7, 2002.
 "Economic Survey of
 Umit Cizre, Secular and Islamist Politics in
 Soner Cagaptay, "European Union Reforms Diminish the Role of the Turkish Military: Ankara Knocking at Brussels Door," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., Aug. 12, 2003, p. 214.
 Turkish Daily News, Nov. 15, 2005.
 Turkish Daily News, June 1, 2006.
 Turkish Daily News, Oct. 24, 2005.
 Turkish Daily News, July 14, 2006.
 Turkish Daily News, Apr. 14, 2006.
 Turkish Daily News, Oct. 3, 2006.
 BBC News, Apr. 27, 2007.
 Michael Rubin, "Erdogan, Ergenekon, and the
 "Foreign Affairs, Sixth Report: The Military," the Committee on Foreign Affairs, British House of Commons, Apr. 23, 2002.
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