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Ideology and the ongoing crisis in Turkey

13 June 2007

The ongoing crisis in Turkey must be seen against the background of a bifurcated society, a weak political system, an ongoing insurgency in Eastern Anatolia and a military-dominated power elite steeped in a state ideology called Kemalism. This note limits itself to an analysis of this ideology as it relates to the role of the Armed Forces in Turkish politics.

Kemalism — background and ideology

The role of Kemalism and the power of the Armed Forces hark back to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his role in the Turkish War of Independence (1919 to 1923). This has two consequences:

The Turkish military still conceives of the nation in terms of a direct mystical bond between the Army, whose commander was Mustafa Kemal, and the people, whose hero and 'father' Atatürk became, whereas political parties are viewed as corrupt and dysfunctional. The army sees the recent mass demonstrations as a vindication of this attitude; although actually it is the army which is mobilising the street against the government. But this also explains why any discussion of Atatürk's personality, even an effort to review historical facts, is greeted with suspicion by the military, as they fear that this could lead in the end to de-legitimisation of the active role that they play in the country's politics. Politics and political problems are therefore seen either as issues of national security or as based on a lack of ideological commitment to Kemalism. Hence, once this principle is violated, the military takes it for granted that they have a mandate for intervention. They do so either by directly taking control of power or by issuing a 'memorandum' (in Turkish: muhtýra< to the public. Such a muhtýra was issued on 27 April 2007.

External Kemalists perceive the role of foreign powers rather negatively. They deeply distrust them and their 'meddling' in domestic affairs, which is understood as undermining the territorial integrity of the country. The strong anti-imperialist basis and tenets of Kemalism made it possible for extremists both on the left and on the right to find common ground with them.

The bases of Kemalism revolve around six principles: statism (étatisme), nationalism, secularism, republicanism, populism and revolutionism. All of them are ill-defined and open to several different interpretations. There are left-, right-wing and even Islamic interpretations of the six principles. The principles are a product of a certain era, i.e. the 1930s. Some definitions however can be clarified: étatisme for instance justifies the state-run industry and the high esteem the 'state' enjoys in the public discourse; revolutionism signifies the break with Ottoman culture, republicanism the break with the Sultanate dynasty and so on. But the Kemalists were able to develop two core messages: (a) secularism, meaning state control over religion, which in the West is misunderstood as the separation of Church and state and (b) nationalism, meaning the fostering of a single unified Turkish nation, which makes public expression of other ethnic identities problematic. Otherwise there is no explicit principle that can be clearly identified as 'democracy' but common sense among Turkish scholars has it that Kemalism as an ideology has served to pave the way for democracy.

Europe and the West

Needless to say, democratisation and Europeanisation played their part in weakening Kemalism, which caused the military to distrust the European Union, who they accuse of condoning terrorism and separatism (i.e. with regard to the Kurdish issue). Loathing of the EU was often expressed at the mass demonstrations, which in any case would never have grown so strong if the European momentum had not started to fade. Now many fear that, without Turkey being anchored in Europe, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkýnma Partisi - Justice and Development Party) may drop its presumed liberal mask at any given moment and start to Islamise the country. Hence the frightened secular middle class poured out into the streets in defence of secularism, something that had to translate into support of the Army in its standoff against the government. But Kemalists also distrust American intentions and see the AKP as an American stooge created to sell out Turkey and to promote 'moderate Islam' in the Middle East.

Islamic challengers

The original challenge for Kemalism was 'reactionary' in the sense that wide segments of society under the leadership of the old regional elites resisted Atatürk's reforms, by using Islam to challenge the state's ideology. But they were also economically liberal and had their greatest success with Turgut Özal's ANAP (navatan Partisi- Motherland Party). Political Islam supported by semi-clandestine groups appeared only in the 1970s and was strongest as a mass movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its biggest success was the Refah Party. The new AKP tries to square the circle by unifying both traditions and finding a common European and pro-Kemalist idiom in the political discourse.

The opening-up of the Turkish economy and the ongoing reforms have created two new middle classes, an Islamist reform-oriented one and a secular, liberal one. On issues of economic reform, the latter sides with the AKP, on other issues - especially on everything concerning religion - they side with the old, Kemalist middle class. Until now no party was able to express the needs of the new liberal and secular middle class. And the ongoing polarisation between the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi - Republican People's Party) and AKP will cause them to split their votes evenly in favour of the AKP and CHP.

Standoff between the AKP and the military

The heart of the current dispute is the question of who controls the Army. Emboldened by their parliamentary majority, AKP cadres were eager to elect a president of whom the military did not approve. Another row involves the prime minister and the General Chief of Staff, with the prime minister insisting on actively commanding the General Chief of Staff, who de facto acts independently. The question of whether or not to invade Iraq seems to be of less magnitude than whether the General Chief of Staff makes a written pledge to always ask for his orders from the prime minister or whether the prime minister reads the military's lips and promulgates orders that are to their liking. In all likelihood, this confrontation will continue until after the elections.

The Kurdish issue is, like Islam, a major irritant for the Kemalists as it has destroyed the vision of an ideal, imagined homogeneous Turkish nation. With the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan - Kurdistan Workers' Party) still active, the Army feels that it has carte blanche to exert pressure regarding this issue too. The build-up of the military in the Southeast fulfils the following aims: (a) to intimidate the local population into voting for certain candidates on 22 July, thus lowering the votes for the pro-Kurdish DTP (Demokratik Toplum Partisi - Democratic Society Party) candidates; (b) to intimidate the KDP in Iraq, and Barzani personally, so that issues like the small Turkish facilities in Northern Iraq are not discussed; (c) to show that the government is weak on national security, which could cost votes in the West of the country and, finally, by so doing (d) help all rival parties of the AKP in the upcoming elections. All this in view of the ultimate goal of electing the future president and commander in chief of the Armed Forces by parliament, thus guaranteeing that the independent role of the military will not be touched, at least not by the AKP.

How deep then is the crisis? In our view it will defuse in two stages, as much of the pressure will ease off after the 22 July elections and finally the pressure should cease with the election of a new president. Neither a direct intervention in Iraq nor a direct military intervention against the government seems to be likely. An intervention in Iraq would involve imponderable risks and a putsch would drive foreign investors out of the country. Hence, given that neither of these appears to be a real option, if a mood of political sobriety prevails among the top brass in the military and the AKP, then the situation should go back to normal by the end of the year. The main reason for cautious optimism can be inferred from the fact that the population was very relaxed when news of the muhtýra made it around, because obviously nobody is afraid of the Army any longer, a clear indicator that a profound and subtle change has taken place within Turkish society.