Between 1960 and 1981, there were three “successful” military takeovers in Turkey, and three other attempts failed. This indicates the important place the army occupies in Turkish political life, but there are differences that set Turkey apart from certain other countries where the army plays a similar role. First and foremost, a civilian parliamentary regime has concurrently existed over a long period of time, during which administrations and oppositions have exchanged places several times via the electoral process. The various coups d’état lasted for short periods, and the so-called parliamentary democratic institutions were revived, to differing degrees, on each occasion.

This situation suggests that there are two means for the legitimization of power in Turkey. During his Balike?ir speech, Gen. Kenan Evren touched upon this duality with characteristic naive candor. Echoing Atatürk, he declared “sovereignty belongs to the nation.” “Kick out any government that you do not like,” he added. “This country is not without a master.” Habit makes this statement less than shocking in Turkish parlance, but when it is translated into any Western language, it becomes clear that this mentality is incompatible with a democratic political culture. Like all other Turkish generals who have been in his position, Evren assumes the “master” of his country to be firstly the army, cloaked in the mantle of “Atatürk-ism.” The proposition that the people should “kick out” any rulers that they do not like can only be understood in this context. For as Evren made these statements, members of mass organizations and associations were languishing in prison for even the tamest and most innocent protests against the political powers. The authority to “kick out” resides only with the Turkish army. The role of the people is to applaud the generals carrying out this task.

The notion that it is “master of the country” has been thoroughly inculcated into the collective mind of the army. Still, the leader of the most unrestrained military dictatorship ever seen in Turkey declares that “sovereignty belongs to the nation.” This intersection of two political structures, which have long coexisted, is significant. As the quintessential upholders of rule “from above,” the military are simultaneously trained to respect the democratic ideal; at the very least, some sectors of the army aspire to that. Nevertheless, the ideal democratic order for them is one where “national unity” is not affected by any disharmony, where everyone shares a common opinion, and where the man at the top is always right. Indeed, Gen. Evren considers European democracies weak from this point of view, and does not hesitate to criticize them. In the process, he cannot restrain himself from perversely depicting his own ideal “democracy.”

The politicians, congressmen and the like, the actors of Turkey’s “rule from below,” also define democracy within a rather conservative framework. Until now, they have promoted a formal democracy which encouraged the masses to be the “extras” in the democratic drama, and serious worries arose whenever the masses overstepped these bounds to express more fundamental demands. Even politicians like Bülent Ecevit, who on the surface aspired to more radical goals, behaved in exactly this manner once in power. Either because they were afraid of the army itself, or because they believed that its structure and ideology were, after all, “necessary” to Turkey, neither they nor the masses ever considered challenging its basic ontology. Although they clearly preferred the parliamentary system, the masses never seriously opposed any military interventions.

Ideology and the State

This situation leads us to the difficult questions of establishing the identity of the dominant classes in Turkey and their relationships with the army. The army played the principal role in the foundation of the modern Turkish state, and there has not been a significant distinction between military ideology and state ideology since then. Ever since the late Ottoman period, the local bourgeoisie had been unable to establish a hegemonic position, and the rural pre-capitalist dominant classes were likewise unable to alter their subservient status before the state, whether Ottoman or Republican. To a significant extent, Ottoman state ideology persisted in the Republic. The military wing in particular, in view of its relative distance from society, its hierarchical structure and its particular educational apparatus, was able to reproduce this ideology with little alteration.

During the last phases of the Ottoman Empire, the bureaucratic intelligentsia had acquired a westernist, enlightenment-oriented perspective. The political passivity of most social classes had conditioned these cadres to a Jacobin reformism. At the same time, there were persistent efforts to keep social classes passive. Kemalism, the official ideology after Atatürk, is by and large an unaltered continuation of this ideology, which the army faithfully adopted from the very beginning. More than 40 years after his death Mustafa Kemal Atatürk continues to hover over Turkish society like an incubus — a fact that can only be explained by the continuous reproduction of this ideology, particularly within the armed forces. This ideology, furthermore, has not faced a serious sustained challenge from civil society. All opposition currents which attempted to develop an opposing ideology have been marginalized and delegitimized. A prime example is the Islamic movement. The Marxist movement only started dissociating itself from Kemalist positivism in the late 1970s — and even then only to a certain extent. The fascists have been more cautious than the religious zealots in taking up an openly anti-Kemalist stance, but they are far from Kemalism. As a consequence of the bloody suppression of the Sheikh Said rebellion (1925) and other Kurdish uprisings, Kurdish secessionists and progressives are also hostile to Kemalism. The only popular movement sympathetic to Ataturk is that of the Alevis, who embraced secularism against the Sunni majority. The broad masses of Turks do not adhere to these currents and are respectful towards the founder of the republic, at least partly because of the heavy reinforcement in the educational system. At the same time, they do not adhere to the army’s Atatürk fetishism.

Turkey’s parliament has undergone significant changes since the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The parliamentary order acquired its own rationale especially after 1950, but because parliamentarianism in Turkey was also established from above, it has not acquired the necessary guarantees of survival. Thus, a kind of “competitive” relationship developed between the two forms of political power: parliamentarism and military authoritarianism. All three of the military takeovers during the last two decades overthrew parties which were the natural representatives of the ruling classes. These two forms of political power must therefore reflect the two sides of a struggle for hegemony.

Capital and the Military

There is a predictable parallelism between the general policies adopted by the army and the various measures which certain segments of the bourgeoisie considered to be in their interest — “predictable” because both are opposed not only to the establishment of a socialist regime, but even to a significant degree of popular control over the state apparatus. Such parallels do not represent an organic link between them, nor do they indicate that the bourgeoisie mobilizes or directs the military for its own purposes. When compared to the armies of many countries situated in the near periphery of the capitalist world — Spain, Greece and Portugal, for instance — the Turkish army seems to possess weaker organic links with the bourgeoisie or other ruling classes. Traces of the Ottoman kapıkilu mentality, in which soldiers were torn away from society and ideologically trained to identify fully with the state, are still in effect. The Janissaries, of course, were selected from among the Christian population of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, much of the personnel of the state was recruited in such a manner. In contemporary discussions of the present-day Turkish army, some radicals propounded the progressive nature of the army, pointing to the fact that officers came from very humble backgrounds. Yet because of the education that the military are subjected to, this situation does not lead to “populistic” attitudes. This initial poverty leads the officers to embrace the army, which “made” them, with even greater loyalty. At the same time, this is one reason for the relatively “anti-capitalist” mentality in the army.

Especially after the 1960 coup, measures were taken to integrate the army further into the developing capitalist structure. It has by now become almost a tradition to offer positions on the executive boards of corporations to high officers, especially generals. The army, or more exactly the officer corps, has also become an employer by virtue of such enterprises as OYAK. All this may have made it easier for some individual officers to operate in a civilian environment. Civil political institutions encouraged these moves to foster just such developments in the army. The military themselves were quite content with this courting. Nevertheless, these developments were less an identification than an agreement among those holding political power on the distribution of the economic surplus. As the beneficiary of considerable economic rewards resulting from these developments, the army continued to meditate, within its particular ideological mold, on what the form of government should be.

From the point of view of the military, the protracted crisis which has affected Turkey in varying degrees since the late 1950s was never completely resolved and was, at bottom, the result of erroneous administration. The army, when commenting on the crisis periodically, would stress firstly the corruption of professional politicians. Another familiar theme was “compromise for the sake of votes,” a political code word for the notion that meeting popular demands is detrimental to maintaining social order.

The transition to multi-party government and the establishment of parliamentarianism had tended to make this military ideology anachronistic — one to which the political cadres could not possibly adapt. This situation is clear from the gradual narrowing of the army’s political allies and collaborators during the three takeovers of the last two decades. The junta of 1960, which called itself the Committee of National Unity, had been influenced by Republican People’s Party leader Ismet Inönü’s opposition to the Democrat Party on the issue of the constitution. It leaned towards the RPP and enlisted the help of RPP intelligentsia to frame the new constitution.

Because its worldview does not grasp the nature of social disorder and the complexity of the factors which affect it, the military maintains that if correct measures (or laws) are applied to society, correct results will be obtained. But Turkey’s crises continued after May 27, 1960. Naturally, the army looked to find the responsibility for this not in itself but in its allies: It felt betrayed. The new constitution granted citizens greater initiative. This was a situation whose consequences the army could not foresee, and which it did not like. Thus, in the coup of March 12, 1971, the army enlisted the help of a narrower circle in its quest to redress Turkish society’s problems. This time the generals turned not to wide intellectual or university circles, but to a cabinet of technocrats (in the parlance of those days, a “cabinet of brains”). A parliament guided by a technocratic government backed in turn by the army’s physical force was regarded as sufficient to maintain the desired spectrum of power.

The years after 1971 saw, along with the resumption of civilian regimes and a gradual return of power to the parliament, an expanding and intensifying crisis. The governments which succeeded each other were helpless before the country’s problems. The army rapidly lost faith in any organized social force or institution outside itself. When it sprang into action in the early morning of September 12, 1980, the army appropriated all elected organs and shut down or took control of any institution, including the press, which could represent an independent source of power or political mobilization. As its allies, the junta chose individual representatives of almost orthodox Kemalist ideology. The generals found themselves in a paradoxical situation: After a period when society had become accustomed to civilian rule, when the army as an institution had gotten into the habit of operating within this framework, the generals advanced the most unadorned militarist mentality and unmediated rule from above. Today, even at the lowest administrative levels, the concept of “election” is being replaced by that of “appointment.”

Popular Acceptance

Life before September 12, 1980, in Turkey was a nightmare which both weakened civilian authorities to their limits and led the broad masses to accept the military without much resistance. Yet this popular acceptance is based on more than the social chaos of the previous few years.

Popular attitudes toward the army are quite complex. One factor is the limited experience of the Turkish masses with self-government. The Turkish population, throughout Ottoman history, existed not as a society but as an aggregate of quite separate communities. Because the state, and especially its military branch, did not permit society any serious organizations outside itself, the humility and lack of self-confidence of the population before politics continues today. In recent history, during the multi-party regime, some contrary developments did take place, and their importance should not be negated. Still, this accumulation of experience did not provide the momentum for a movement to oppose accustomed military intervention. Well before September 12, 1980, the army had formally notified the president of its “concerns” — in effect, a preview of the coup. Yet the politicians received this intervention with passivity and resignation.

Military service is, for every Turkish male, a primary act of initiation. One suffers through it to “become a man.” People who meet this institution as individuals, during military service, acquire a feeling of total helplessness which they retain for the rest of their lives. The generals appreciate the importance of this experience from the point of view of mass education.

Turkey is a poor country where demands are unavoidably many. Because there is no oligarchic structure and social mobility is quite high, each period creates the conditions for the rise of its own era of “wild capitalists.” The broad masses in the middle of society feel the need for political arbiters. Party leaders, mayors, labor leaders, each take on a “fatherly” role in their own domain and govern in a patriarchal manner. The army, the incarnation of the soul of Atatürk — father Turk — projects its image as the “father” of the entire society, and is well placed to play this Bonapartist role.

Atatürk’s proclaimed objective, that Turkey reach the level of contemporary Western civilization, was seen by the army as a directive given to society by the commander-in-chief. It therefore interprets any delays in the achievement of this aim as insubordination and semi-conscious subversion. Civilian administrations are, in the eyes of the military, always “guilty” to a greater or lesser extent. When the radical trade union confederation, DISK, committed a heinous crime against “national unity” by staging a mass rally on May Day 1977, the army saw the civilian administration which tolerated this as equally guilty. Each military intervention has thus immediately been followed by mass punishment of all crimes committed in the past. The army intervention on September 12 came after a period of unprecedented “criminality.” The ultimate criminal was the entire Turkish people, because it had attempted to be a society without notifying the army or asking its permission. The army took it upon itself to punish society and consolidate a new barracks structure over it. It has displayed exceptional drive in reorganizing not only political life but also daily life. Each and every officer now has the right to repair the imperfections he finds in society.

The Potential of the Opposition

The intervention of the army at every level creates a certain potential for opposition at each level. Yet no force capable of uniting this opposition is in sight. All strata which were in opposition in previous periods are now under very severe pressures. Ecevit tried at first to address society by himself: But when he criticized the anti-democratic regime, he took great care to conduct his opposition in an individual and unorganized manner. In contrast, Demirel tried to keep his organization together and under his control, but refrained from any form of opposition. Turkey’s traditional politicians appeared to believe that this period of intervention would also be transient, and that once civilian rule is restored they would be able to redress the damages inflicted. Given the serious economic hardships that faced Turkey, being in the government was anyway not a very inviting prospect. Letting the army do all the necessary “dirty business” before returning to power seemed a reasonable approach.

It is doubtful that the conservative right, assembled as the Justice Party or its organizational descendant, will in its opposition work uphold positions conforming to the principles of a democratic civil society. The social democratic Republican People’s Party has its own strong etatist tradition. One variant of this was the view that “progressive and nationalist officers” would lead Turkey to socialism. Other radical political currents, including the Marxist left, do not appear to be close to a democratic worldview. Any opposition to the army confronts a history rooted in the imposition of social and political solutions from above.

Turkey’s promised “return to democracy” is based on limits imposed by the military, and is being realized within a procedure imposed by the military. The army’s power in Turkey’s political life has become more entrenched and harder to turn back. There has been no united opposition of those forces in favor of democratic institutions and a civilian regime. The generals could be toppled by contradictions of their own making, but that would only amount to a “palace coup.” Political power would shift from the hands of one elite to another, and politics would be determined without any mass participation. The political tradition would persist.

The vulnerability of civil society gives military intervention an unquestionable legitimacy in Turkey. This is the situation facing all democratic forces after September 12. A genuine democracy is only possible through deep-rooted democratic organization. Will civilian forces be able to unite on common principles in the face of a new constitution which all but abolishes such organizations, and thereby demonstrate the political maturity to function democratically themselves? This is the indispensable condition for the establishment of civil society or genuine democracy in Turkey.

How to cite this article:

Ahmet Kemal "Military Rule and the Future of Democracy in Turkey," Middle East Report 122 (March/April 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This