View Full Version : Turkish army keeps eye on politicians

Ali Asker
8 november 2006, 22:05
Turkish army keeps eye on politicians

BBC-The tanks are rumbling through the streets of Istanbul and the crowds
are cheering. Not images from one of the four military coups of the last 50
years, but celebrations for the birthday of the Turkish republic. Row upon
row of sometimes rather baby-faced young men in smart blue uniforms march
past, carrying trumpets and drums adorned with the Turkish flag.

Their white helmets and matching spats gleam. Behind them comes a troop of
rather harder looking men shouldering assault rifles.

Then the serious stuff. Angular amphibious landing vehicles trundle by.
Helicopter gunships whirr out of the sky.

The powerful chug of lines of tanks is drowned out by the scream of fighter
bombers overhead.

Above stirring martial music the announcer yells out: "The sun is yours, the
earth is yours, the sky is yours, let victory be your most sacred desire!"

'Political force'

It is a reminder that this is one of the largest armies in the world, more
than a million people under its command, in Nato second only in size to the
world's only superpower.

But it is also a reminder that Turkey's army is not only a potential force
on the battlefield - it is a real force in day-to-day politics.

Few adult Turks can see this sight without recalling that the last coup was
just nine years ago and was preceded by the coups of 1980, 1971 and 1960.

Senior diplomats say that Turkey has moved beyond coups and the army would
only intervene like that if there was a total economic and political

But no-one thinks the army is about to give up its political role either.

If the army thinks the politicians are giving in to the rise of political
Islam, Kurdish separatists or are betraying northern Cyprus, then the
politicians will know about it.

EU concerns

It is true that Turkey's armed forces have swallowed hard in recent years
and accepted a reduction in their power - mainly to please the European
Union, which on the whole they think is a good, if extremely irritating and
naive, thing.

Since 2001, Turkey's national security council has had more elected
civilians on its board and the cabinet merely has to "evaluate" that body's
decisions, rather than "take them into consideration".

It meets less frequently and the civilian government can now audit military

This summer laws were revised so that military courts can no longer try

But these look like mere technical details compared to the EU list of

In the report being published on 8 November 2006, the European Commission
notes that the armed forces exercise "significant political influence", the
military has in law "a wide margin of manoeuvre" within "a broad definition
of national security".

It concludes that the military should stick to speaking about defence
matters and even these statements should only be made under the authority of
the government.

General's warning

This is very far from what actually happens.

When the EU condemns the Turkish top brass for making "public statements to
influence areas beyond their responsibilities" it could well cite last
month's speech by the chief of staff, Gen Yasar Buyukanit.

He said the Turkish republic and its values were "under heavy attack" from
"people in the highest positions of government" because they wanted to
redefine secularism.

Make no mistake, he does mean the present government. It was elected by a
massive majority and is the first party for years that has been able to rule
without needing to form a coalition.

It is up for election again next year and expected to win again. It could
take the presidency as well.

It was elected promising to bring the headscarf ban to an end, something the
majority of the population want.

But it has not been able to do it. From the women affected to fundamentalist
agitators, no-one I talk to seems the tiniest bit surprised or even
disappointed. They know the army has drawn a red line.

'Army is constitution'

Nearly two weeks after the National Day parade, I am watching a debate in
the studios of Crescent TV, an Islamic channel on what is probably the
hottest, longest-running topic in Turkey today - the relationship between
religion and the state.

Four earnest men around a desk listen as a taped report sets the terms of
the debate.

The reporter begins: "It's 83 years since the birth of the Turkish republic
and yet we are still governed by a constitution written by soldiers..."

But this perhaps misses the point. In Turkey, the army thinks it is the

At least, it takes upon it the function of the constitution in many
countries, seeing itself as the highest arbiter of the state, making sure
that mere democratically elected governments do not stray from the straight
and narrow.

Its sacred driving principle is that the sacred should never become a
driving principle of the state.

It sees itself as a bulwark against political Islam and what it would regard
as surrender to terrorism.

'Post-modern coup'

A retired four-star general, Edib Baser, who now runs the Institute for the
Study of Ataturk's Principles and the History of the Republic, sees the
state as a building.

"If this building falls down everything... including democracy, freedom of
speech, human rights... gets crushed underneath. So the roof has to be
strong. The army keeps an eye on it."

It is instructive to look at the1997 coup, which has been called the first
"post-modern coup". That is a trendy way of saying the army made clear its
displeasure, and events followed without the need for much brute force.

Neither the generals nor their puppets took over but the government resigned
and there was a clampdown on political Islam.

Power without responsibility, perhaps, but it is probably more accurate to
say the Turkish army feels it has a responsibility but does not actually
seek direct power.

All armies, perhaps, have a reverential sense of their own history, but this
is especially true in Turkey.

'Hampstead Liberals'

They were the driving force behind the revolution that modernised and
westernised the country.

In the young Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, an army officer all his life
until he became a revolutionary leader, used the army to build the schools
and canals and mosques for grateful villagers.

But his conscript army also educated its soldiers, making sure they could
read and write before they left its service.

A consequence of this is a rather strange anomaly.

In Turkey, there are liberals in a modern Western sense. But many of those
who you would expect to be "Hampstead Liberals" in Britain are here among
the strongest supporters of the army.

The controversial artist Bedri Baykam tells me: "This government
unfortunately is trying to change every law little by little. It's as though
we were trying to enter the Iranian Union, not the EU.

"Turkey is the only Muslim country that has democracy, freedom of speech and
an international lifestyle and that is not a coincidence. It's because of
Ataturk's ideas and the Turkish army's care and attention."

He has just been on a march in favour of secularism and against the
possibility of the headscarf ban being lifted, and adds: "We do not want any
military coup d'etat, because that would take us 20 or 30 years backwards.
But we also don't want an Islamic coup, because that would take us 1,000
back. Between 30 and 1,000, I would prefer 30."

'Perpetual fear'

Some think that as Turkey changes and becomes more secure as a secular
democracy, then the army will become more relaxed about Islamic symbols in
the public sphere and slowly relinquish its role.

The army itself sometimes says that is its aim and desire. But it will not
be easy.

Professor Hailil Berktay, a historian and expert on the way Turkey sees its
own history, tells me: "The army had a semi-colonial mission to the rest of
society. And they've never ceased enthusiastically believing that they are
the real civilising elite in Turkey."

"They say, 'We are the ones keeping Pandora's box closed and preventing the
demons of backwardness, superstition, religious fundamentalism, Kurdish
separatism and Armenian nationalism from emerging.' It's this sense of a
civilising and protecting mission that drives them."

He adds: "The larger problem is the way the rest of Turkish society has
internalised this and lives in perpetual fear of what the military might

The real test may come next year, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
may decide to run for president.

If he does and wins, the thought of a man whose wife wears a headscarf
living in the presidential palace, a man who was once imprisoned for words
thought to represent militant Islam, occupying the role that Ataturk first
held, may be too much for some officers to bear.

Then again, if these things come to pass and the sky does not fall in, they
may start to relax a little and keep the moaning for the army mess table.

by Paul Taylor