By: Devyani Wadera, Research Analyst, GSDN
In 1923 Turkey achieved its independence under the guidance of military leader Gazi Kemal Ataturk, and in 2023 will complete a hundred years of its liberation, a history of the nation that has been marred by military coups and attempts. The overpowering military junta has directly intervened in the political arena multiple times with the most recent coup attempt in 2016. With the Turkish army’s high degree of autonomy and hegemonic powers, it has successfully managed to carry out coups in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. These coups speak of a turbulent past in Turkish history which has damaged the democratic spirit of the country and led the state to an authoritarian regime. In this article, we will be demonstrating the factors that make Turkey a military coup-prone state meaning a country that is highly susceptible to the rule of the military by overthrowing an elected government. There is a need to delve deep into the Turkish political, and historical context to realize the source of this autonomous power of the military which subsides the government.
The Turkish army sees itself as the custodian of the legacy of Kemalist ideology which propagates western style modernization and secularism in the Muslim-dominated state. It always considered itself the true defender of the unity and security of the country. Coups led by the army were not seen by them as disruptive but rather as a mechanism for them to protect secularism and keep the inharmonious forces like Islam, the Kurdish separatist movement, and sectarianism at bay. In other words, in the larger political system, the military was the symbol of nationhood built on traditional Turkish values which were ingrained in the army itself, as it laid the bricks of modernization during its initial years. This idea was instilled in the institution by Kemal himself, who stated, “Whenever the Turkish nation has wanted to take a step up, it has always looked to the army as the leader of the movements to achieve lofty national ideal. When speaking of the army, I am speaking of the intelligentsia of the Turkish nation who are the true owners of this country. Turkish nation considers its army the guardian of its ideal”. This highlights how the Turkish military was entrusted with the role of the savior in the political scenario which was to overlook the political activities and ensure the well-being of the state.
Back in 1960, the military carried out, its first coup to cool off a highly tense confrontation between the government led by Democrat Party and the opposition. The predicament took an ugly turn with the government toying with the idea of going back to a one-party authoritative regime and to rectify this situation and reemphasize democracy in the state the military intervened. From this moment it started playing a more active role in politics and reshaping it whenever it deemed necessary. For the military, the civilian rules have been polluted by corruption, low devotion to democracy, and the core values of Ataturk. By assuming the role of the watchdog, the army is an ever-present player in the political scene, waiting to restructure aspects according to its own will. The start of this was the new constitution devised by the military in 1961 which increased its political autonomy. Through legal channels, the Turkish military legalised its actions, which is evident in Article 35 of the Turkish Armed forces Internal Security law of the constitution which states “the duty of the armed forces is to watch and protect the Turkish homeland and the Republic of Turkey, which is established by the constitution.” The introduction of laws like these legitimized the authority of the military and its right to intervene in the political system at its own whims and fancies in the name of national security. This validated the responses of the army and put it on a political pedestal that gave it unhindered political freedom and undermined the democratic process in the country.
Under the garb of territorial integrity, the military legitimized its every step and with every escalating move gathered more power. The advent of the National Security Council (NSC) with the new constitution of 1961 enabled the government to wield authority over areas that were earlier controlled by civilian authorities. The forum was put in place for the military to state its opinions on issues of national security. This was initially seen as a joint venture between the civilian and military apparatus, but with every new coup, and new constitutional amendment the National Security Council (NSC) increased its legal powers and military members. This way the government took on a tutelary role within politics. The NSC started taking decisions on various matters such as the economy, the curriculum in schools, foreign policy, and abolishing the penal immunity of members of parliament from the (Kurdish) Democratic Party. Earlier the objective of the NSC was to provide the government with credible information however, this changed with the 1971 constitutional amendment which stated that now NSC will be ‘recommending’ it’s findings to the government. Article 118 in the 1982 constitution further expanded the power of the military apparatus as it stated that the government must give priority consideration and thoughts to the recommendations made by NSC. Over time, the army gained considerable executive power which superseded civilian authority and gave way to a dual executive system- civilian authority and military authority (NSC).
Another reason for its growing institutional power was that the General Chief of Army Staff appointed by the president has a higher stature than the minister of defence and many other elected officials in the government. During the war, under the 1982 constitution, the General Chief of Army Staff carries out the duties of commander-in-chief on behalf of the president. Additionally, the superior position of the General Chief of Army Staff is highlighted by its autonomy regarding matters concerning defence policy, military budget, production and procurement of weapons, and intelligence gathering. This speaks of how the Army Chief has a weighty role in influencing the politics of the nation. The army also has complete control over its military budget and the allocation of resources to different needs without much governmental interference. In addition, the military also has complete control over senior promotions and successive leaders in the army. This ensures that the military has complete control over keeping its loyalists at the top who align with their ideology and ensure the subservient stature of the government.
The recent interventions by the military were in 1997, 2007, and 2016. In 1997 the military overthrew the Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party. In Turkish history, this event is referred to as a soft coup or a postmodern coup. The National Security Council issued a memorandum that was seen as the ultimatum to the welfare party. This was in response to the rising Islamist ideology according to NSC. This is a testimony to how the Turkish military considers itself the protector of the country against internal threats which are incongruent with the western style modernization that the country has adopted. Additionally, the most important element which makes the Turkish military successful in its endeavour is how earlier there was no public opposition to the military. There was no other actor in place who had the power of restructuring politics and how mostly the army was unopposed. The civilian forces did not question the power structure and the unrequired hegemony of the military junta.
However, this changed in 2016 when a coup attempt was planned by a certain section of the military junta from the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO). The Turkish military announced on its website that a coup has taken place and a curfew has been imposed all over the country. This faction referred to itself as the Peace at Home Council. The coup instigators blocked the Bosphorus bridge, took control of strategic locations in multiple cities, bombed the parliament in session, and attacked the hotel where President Erdogan was staying. According to coup plotters, they did this as they felt that democracy was eroding and Erdogan was taking the nation towards an Islamist and authoritative rule. However, this attempt was overturned by the public as they took to the streets and displayed their open defiance against the regime. Turkey saw the power of the people as they took to the streets and resisted the coup. It proves the resilience of the civilians against the authoritative rule of the army. On the night of the coup attempt, 300 deaths and 2100 casualties were reported many of which included civilians.
Here we can conclude that the reasons for the Turkish military intervening in the political sphere are deeply entrenched in historical, legal, and cultural reasons. With every successive military coup, the Turkish state has taken a hit causing a fragile democracy. However, the overturning of the coup in 2016 was a watershed event in Turkish history as it retained a moment in the nation’s history where the will of the people sustained the power of the barrel.