International American Council

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Middle East and North Africa

Turkish legislature stymies military’s power

Last Saturday, the Turkish Grand National Assembly amended article 35 of the country’s 1982 constitution, which previously gave the Turkish Armed Forces free rein to act in whatever way they deemed necessary to safeguard the republic, to curtail this power to dealing with external threats only, reports the Anatolian News Agency.

This constitutional article had previously given the Turkish military legitimacy to step in if it felt that the government was not adhering to Turkish republican principles, sometimes leading to coups d’état.

The military has historically played a very important role in Turkish politics, as the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a brigadier general in the Ottoman Army during World War I, famous for leading the Central Powers in the Gallipoli Campaign and in the Caucasus. It was Atatürk who founded the republican principles, known as the Kemalist “Six Arrows,” that the Turkish government would be expected to adhere to for the next ninety-odd years. These principles—republicanism, populism, nationalism, secularism, statism, and revolutionism—would become associated with the Turkish military, likely because of Atatürk’s close military affiliation and affinity.

In practical terms, it was largely challenges to these Kemalist principles, and therefore challenges to the Turkish military and its history, that led to a total of four governmental regimes being overthrown by the army. In 1960, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, a less secular leader than his predecessors, was ousted ostensibly for violating the separation of powers. Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel was overthrown twice, once in 1971 and once in 1980, both times because he could not preserve law and order on his own. Most recently, Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was forced out in the military in 1997 for allegedly promoting Islamist fundamentalism in his government.

No specific reason was given for this week’s constitutional amendment, but it may have been spurred by the long line of current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s gambits to centralize power in the hands of the civilian government rather than the military. Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) are more religiously conservative than the norm for Turkish ruling regimes, and the regime’s president, Abdullah Gül, was given a stern warning by the military for having a wife who dons a headscarf.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the internal peace in Turkey at the moment, or the lack thereof. The coups against Demirel have perhaps set a precedent for the military stepping in to preserve law and order, and in light of the nationwide anti-government protests sparked by Istanbul’s Gezi Park’s imminent destruction, Erdoğan’s ability to maintain law and order is now in question. This constitutional amendment may buy him some immunity from the Turkish Armed Forces taking the matter of internal security into their own hands. 

In light of the fact that a fellow religiously-bent Middle Eastern politician, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, was ousted by the Egyptian military after mass protests just a few weeks ago, it is hardly surprising that the Turkish government is shoring up protection against a threat from its own military.

By Laura Gates

Source: The New York Times, Reuters, Hurriyet Daily News

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