Ankara (GPA) – For the first time in the history of Turkey, it appears the military is actually accountable to the civilian government, in large part as a result of the old guard’s own decisions.
These past several months have seen US-Turkish relations hit an all-time low as Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s ever-growing power continues to run up against US interests. A major factor in this recent decline is a new shift in Turkish foreign policy which has led this NATO member to improve relations with countries directly opposed by the bloc (read: Russia).
The Turkish military was relied on as a western tool for a good portion of the 20th century as an independent and autonomous wing of the state that usually worked within Atlanticist post-war frameworks, and could be relied on to maintain order in desperate times. Instead, it now seems the military is aligning themselves with a civilian government that has opposing views to the former military leadership due to self-inflicted wounds from their role in Turkish politics.
The latest example of this new situation is the recent deal between the Turkish and Russian governments to sell Ankara, Russian-made air defense systems (which NATO complains are incompatible with current systems in Turkey). This would historically be something the military and security secular deep-state would have kept from happening but now that Erdogan seems in complete control following last years coup attempt, perhaps we should look back on past Turkish military actions and coup histories to understand that the Atlanticist generals did this to themselves.
A History of Turkish Coups and The Movements They’ve Crushed
1960: The First Coup of The Republic
The first coup inside the Republic of Turkey lays a lot of the groundwork for the clashes currently underway in Turkey. This coup was carried out to remove the elected government of the Democratic Party (DP) from power.
The DP was a center-right populist organization (sound familiar?) that leaned away from the traditional structures of the Turkish state developed after World War One. Unlike the generations of leaders who had risen from the military of Ataturk, these new leaders tended to come more from civilian spheres such as business.
The DP’s time in power led to a period of civil unrest as they began to roll back laws that were in place since the founding of modern Turkey such as the strict policies protecting state-secularism. The party played a positive role in Turkey (ending the one-party state) and a still-unclear one (establishing modern Turkish Islamism). Yet enough of the society supported the secular Kemalists or just opposed the DP enough that this triggered a level of civil unrest that became unacceptable to the circle of military leaders known as the National Unity Committee.
The DP also had an awful fiscal policy – leading to high inflation – and a tendency to crackdown on dissent that eventually led to restricted freedoms of the press and speech. All of this contributed to the coup led by the NUC, which happens to have some bad policies of its own.
The coup 1960 coup plot was organized by Alparslan Türkeş, who, when announcing the coup to the nation affirmed that his faction was “committed to all our alliances and commitments. We believe in NATO and CENTO and are connected.” Türkeş was also a member of a Turkish anti-communist organization known as Counter-Guerilla, which was an arm of the US Operation Gladio programs in Turkey and was among the first 16 personnel to travel to the US for training. This marks the beginning of a conflict that still plays out today between the secular pro-western deep state and the Islamist nationalism of reactionary Turkish civil society.
This marks the beginning of a pattern of conflict that still plays out today between the secular pro-western deep state and the Islamist nationalism of reactionary Turkish civil society. Even the leader installed by the 1960 coup, Cemal Gürsel, said after the coup that they had overthrown a democratically elected tyrannical state in order for democracy to flourish, much like what would’ve likely happened if the 2016 coup had succeeded.
1971: The “Coup by Memorandum”
The military may have had an adverse reaction to the rise of the Islamists in 1960 but following that period of DP economics and then mismanagement by post-1960 governments, new forces began to rise as a response to a major economic downturn that appeared even more threatening. This initially included new student movements, labor organizations and general secular coalition activist movements.
This atmosphere later developed into a new rise of left politics in Turkish civil society which was later followed by a resurgent right as a reaction to these new trends. The late 60s saw a strong return of Islamism and a new stripe of Turkish fascism – most notably the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves, and the anti-Kemalism National Order Party.
It was the chaos caused by these two sides of Turkish street politics, as well as a failing government led by the fractured Justice Party that was hemorrhaging allies, that led the military, under Chief of the General Staff Memduh Tağmaç to issue an ultimatum via memorandum to the government to restore order and “the formation, within the context of democratic principles, of a strong and credible government, which will neutralise the current anarchical situation and which, inspired by Atatürk’s views, will implement the reformist laws envisaged by the constitution” or else the military would “exercise its constitutional duty” to do it.
This time the far-right US-backed coup plotters did not take direct control of the government and instead supervised the exchange of power into the hands of a moderate ‘socialist’ Republican Peoples Party (CHP), which may have been center-left but were still fiercely nationalist and adherent to the important pillars of Kemalism. In fact, as a method of showing that actual left politics wouldn’t be allowed in the new government, the public prosecutor filed charges on the day of the coup against both the Workers’ Party of Turkey for communist agitation and the Federation of the Revolutionary Youth of Turkey for “being responsible for street violence.” The military walked away from this coup thinking they were secure with the new liberal government but this would prove to be wrong almost immediately.
1980: The Coup for Neoliberalism
Despite the 1971 effort to restore order, much to the military’s chagrin, the new civilian government failed to control the far left and right street violence and the CHP government failed to gain popular support, seeing a procession of 11 Prime Ministers between 1971 and 1980. The nationalist pro-western elements of the military were once again in an unacceptable position and after this 9 years of unrest and series of massacres by the military and militant civilian groups decided to launch another coup.
The coup, launched on September 7th, placed the entire country under martial law and saw the parliament and civilian government apparatus dissolved, ushering in three years of martial law. The main priority in the process of “restoring order” during this time was to crush elements of Turkish society such as trade unions and saw purges, disappearances, and murders of leftist activists. These groups primarily were left-leaning, anti-NATO and opposed to the inevitable capitalist reforms they saw as the only other possible outcome besides socialism.
It seems the demonized groups, were correct in this assumption since after the period of military rule from 1980 to 83, the socially conservative, neoliberal Motherland Party following the passage of a new constitution through a 1982 referendum. The Motherland Party carried out the predictable ‘reforms’, such as the privatization of public industries but they also helped widen the range of the acceptable electoral political spectrum, albeit without any remaining significant secular leftist opposition, which likely played a role in the final coup before 2016.
1997: The First Islamist Surge
This lack of secular opposition in Turkish politics between 1983 and 1997 came at a time where the people of Turkey were still dissatisfied with the pro-west neoliberal status quo that had been kept in place by the military since 1960 and to the military’s dismay there was only one outlet left for voters that turned out to be worse than the former left. This culminated in the 1995 elections which saw the victory of the Welfare Party.
The Welfare party had amongst its ranks, a younger Tayyip Erdogan who became the mayor of Istanbul. During this period, Erdogan carried out a major overhaul of city policy, winning admiration from the local and international press, citizens across Turkey, and members of both the outgoing and next class of ambitious Islamist politicians. Erdogan was arrested in the purges following the 1997 coup and served four months in prison in 1999.
This electoral outcome was obviously unacceptable to the guardians of Kemalist secularism in the military and in 1997 another coup memorandum was given to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. The coup left the parliament and government structures in place while forcing Erbakan to resign (earning the event the moniker of “a post-modern coup”). Other demands in the memorandum included 8 years of mandatory secular primary schooling, the closure of religious schools and the abolishment of sectarian religious groups known as Tarikats. The direct effects of this coup and the Islamist backlash to it are a crucial part of the makeup of the current Turkish political atmosphere and there is no better avatar for the Islamist spring-back than President Erdogan.
The Rise of Erdogan and The New Turkish Military
Erdogan never forgave the forces behind the 1997 coup and this remained on his mind as he emerged from prison and started his slow climb back up the political ladder with the new Islamist Virtue Party (FP). The FP was later outlawed in 2001 for violating secularism laws which led to Erdogan’s departure and later the formation of his own party, Justice and Development (AKP), in 2002.
From the 2002 elections on, the AKP saw massive regional electoral victories and then parliamentary victories, resulting in growing majorities for the Islamists. AKP also presented and passed two constitutional referendums, including one in 2007 that specifically changed the rules making the presidency an elected official rather than an appointed one. Another referendum was passed in 2010 which limited civil legal protections. It was during this time that Erdogan was elected as Prime Minister (2003-2014) and later become President in 2014.
This period also saw Erdogan go after the secular or critical elements in the military and security apparatus. In 2011 this strategy by the AKP to secure power was put on public display when several military leaders involved in the 1997 coup were put on trial. The trials were also a part of a more broad restructuring of the military which saw the secular Kemalist elements replaced with followers of Fethullah Gulen and other factions allied with Erdogan at the time.
This new structure helped secure further power for the AKP until 2013 when alleged Gulenists elements of the state began leveling charges of corruption against Erdogan’s party. This saw the first major purge of Gulenists, primarily from the police force, and secured further immunity from the law for the AKP. The aftermath of this series of events is what lead to the falling out of Erdogan and Gulen, although some Gulenists elements did remain in the top ranks of the military.
The last of these elements were removed from the military following the 2016 coup attempt which was likely triggered by several of the core coup plotters obtaining advance knowledge of an upcoming purge. The pushback against these remaining ‘Gulenists’ was more likely actually pushback against the elements left in the military that were pro-NATO, pro-EU and opposed to expansive operations in countries like Syria. It was likely this wing of the military wasn’t led by any one element but instead a strange coalition of endangered Gulenists, Kemalists and nationalists.
Now that a majority of these elements have been purged from the military, these positions are no longer the dominant school of thought in Turkey. The military is now controlled by the few generals who weren’t idealistic enough to be purged and now have been threatened into submission. The intelligence community’s dominant faction has also shifted, now being primarily influenced by Dogu Perincek of the nationalist far-left Patriotic Party whose ideology is opposed to western influence and aimed at integration into the Eurasian community.
This marks the end of elements within the Turkish state that would be resistant to Erdogan’s new direction for Turkey and shows just how solid the AKP’s control over Turkey has become. This, unfortunately, means that there are few elements left inside Turkey worth supporting at this point in time but this should put the rise of Erdogan in a different perspective.
While Erdogan may be responsible for his actions now that he is in power, it is important to keep his reign in context. Erdogan may be in charge now, but the Turkish military maintained control of the country for almost a century through a series of periodic coups that managed to smash any element that could resist Islamism. Once the military tried to crush the Islamists, in a country they had beaten into submission for decades, it seems the peoples’ patience had run out and this was the movement they couldn’t stop. In the end, it was the lack of actual democracy that empowered the man who “killed Turkish democracy,” and the generals have nobody but themselves to blame.