The end of an era in Turkish politics

Recent resignations by Turkish military generals may mark a change in the military’s historic role in politics.

Ataturk rally
Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Isik Kosaner is one of many who have resigned in recent days [EPA]

Anyone reading about the politics and history of Turkey is likely to be struck by the role played by the Turkish military. The Republic was established in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and other soldier-statesmen. Since then the military establishment has positioned itself above civilians and acted as the guardian of the newly created Turkish state.

Until the end of the 1980s, six of the first seven presidents of Turkey were generals that had allowed the military to supervise politicians and intervene in politics whenever it was “necessary”. The military had staged four coups – in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 – imposing its rule by overthrowing elected governments and devised constitutions in order to guide politics. The Turkish military elite legitimised its privileged status in politics by basing the duty of the military on two crucial premises: Westernisation and defending the republic against external and internal “enemies”.

The military has been the staunchest supporter of Ataturk’s ideal: a modern, secular and advanced nation-state. The aim of the Kemalist Revolution was to elevate the Turkish society to the level of advanced Western civilisation, and ambitious reforms transformed traditional cultural, legal, and educational institutions. This was revolutionary in that the nation was disassociated from Islam and God as the community of believers and was anchored to the Turkish state and homeland. The military was committed to guard these top-down reforms and the secular nation-state, and any opposition attempt against them had been eliminated. 

Protection against communisim

After the Second World War, establishing a democratic system became an indispensable part of this ideal since Turkey dedicated itself to enter into the “Free World” against the communist bloc. Under the pressure of the West, Turkey’s political regime was changed to a multi-party system with implementation of free and fair elections. Nevertheless, the military-bureaucratic establishment argued that European democracies cannot set the example for Ankara.

Turkey, facing the “communist threat” and “Soviet expansionism”, should be a “special democracy.” According to this rationale, the country is located in a vulnerable region surrounded by internal and external “enemies” next to the Soviet Union, and therefore the military should have a very special role defined by the Turkey’s unique geopolitics. This rationale was internalised by civilians and significantly justified the military’s authoritarian political supremacy and its refusal to reform Turkey’s “special democracy.”

In line with other Mediterranean countries in the Western bloc including Spain, Portugal, and Greece, the Cold War’s dichotomous international structure allowed Turkish generals to contain the competition over politics by restricting comprehensive democratic participation. Left-wing opposition and intellectuals, demanding a more egalitarian political and economic system, were accused of working as the fifth column of communism in Turkey and were labelled as traitors.

Towards the end of the Cold War, whereas the above-mentioned Mediterranean countries ended the military tutelage over politics and restored the liberal parliamentary democracy, the Turkish military stalled further democratisation and preserved its hegemony even after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

During the 1990s political Islam and Kurdish separatism replaced the “communist danger” and were identified as the main threats for the country’s security. The military, the self-appointed “guardian of the republic”, considered the fight against the PKK and political Islam as necessary duties to defend Turkish nationalism and secularism, the two main pillars of Kemalism.

Recent times

In the past decade, the civil-military balance has changed dramatically as a result of economic and political liberalisation, reinforced by the developing relations between Turkey and the European Union, which, in 1999, opened Ankara’s long path towards full membership. The disagreement between pro-EU actors and parties, and the military elite crystallised over the adoption of international societal norms, such as cultural pluralism and linguistic rights for ethnic groups, as well as the rejection of the traditional national security state. AKP’s rise to power in 2002 started the process of de-politicisation of the military that was required for Turkey’s accession to the EU.   

The recent resignations of Turkey’s Chief of General Staff, as well as the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air force at the protest of the jailing of 250 officers on charges of conspiring against the ruling AKP, revealed the end of the privileged position of the military in Turkish politics. For the first time in Turkish history, top military commanders decided to quit their positions rather than seizing power and deposing the elected government. This unprecedented development symbolises the end of the military’s supremacy and the beginning of a new era, in which Ataturk’s famous motto written on the wall of the Turkish parliament is truly cemented 88 years after the establishment of the republic; “sovereignty belongs without reservation or condition to the nation”.   

Dr Behlul Ozkan currently teaches at Mamara University in Istanbul. His book, From the Abode of Islam to Turkish Vatan, will be published by Yale University Press in 2012.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.