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From Casting Director to Failed Coup

Unseating the Turkish military

This essay is intended as a follow-up to Phyllis Jeffrey’s earlier piece, “Act One of Turkey’s Post-1980 Political Drama.”

The most recent period of competitive democratic politics in Turkey was bookended by two coups: those of 1980 and 2016. If the first heralded the re-organization of politics under the supervision of the military, the second instigated the transition to a civilian autocracy. The significance of the failed coup of 2016 has been more than symbolic: soon after July 15, the government declared a state of emergency and, in the environment of post-coup hysteria, attacked political rivals it could not fully defeat through electoral means. For instance, leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party were promptly arrested. The purges conducted by the AKP government since July 15, 2016 — mass firings, detentions, and arrests — resemble those conducted by the 1980 junta, carried out on an even larger scale. Considering that the Turkish military had successfully intervened on four occasions since 1960 to oust civilian governments, what changed between 1980 and 2016?

Two massive investigations and show trials of military officers between 2007 to 2013 — the alleged Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plots — became rightly famous for their unprecedented incursion into military authority. The AKP, at that time still in league with the followers of cleric Fethullah Gülen, backed the zealous efforts of Gülenist police and prosecutors that resulted in hundreds of convictions — admitting only after the AKP-Gülen fallout that much evidence was fabricated.

Yet the weakening of the military’s political role began before the AKP took power. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Turkey — in its bid for accession to the European Union — reformed multiple areas of its constitution and laws, including measures that clipped the wings of the military. While the first major reform was passed in 1995 (a condition for Turkey’s customs union with the EU), the pace of reform increased after Turkey’s 1999 candidacy, when the military’s power began to be tackled more directly. Measures of a thirty-four-article reform package passed in October 2001 infringed more directly on military power: an amendment to Article 118, for instance, gave civilian members a numeric majority in the military-dominated National Security Council (NSC). Meanwhile, the weight accorded NSC advice was diminished — from the prior requirement that it be “given priority consideration” by the Council of Ministers to the softer directive that it be “evaluated.” Special protections given to laws imposed by the junta (like one regulating political parties’ activities) were lifted, opening the way to their legal challenge.

Additional reforms implemented by the AKP after it assumed power in November 2002 continued this trend. Constitutional amendments of August 2003 further civilianized the NSC, while imposing governmental oversight of military finances. And in 2010, the AKP government held a popular referendum on the significant date of September 12 — thirty years to the day that the coup of 1980 took place. Voters weighed in on a twenty-six-article document proposing changes to as many articles of the 1982 constitution. Among the proposed reforms was a measure lifting the 1980 coup leaders’ immunity from prosecution. Measures like this, alongside other liberalizing reforms such as granting citizens the right to directly petition the Constitutional Court, drew support from AKP and non-AKP voters alike. The phrase, “It’s not enough, but yes!” (yetmez ama evet!) became a slogan of some non-AKP voters. Measures for judicial reform, including the expansion of both the size and candidate pool of the Constitutional Court drew a more mixed reaction; as legal scholar Aslı Bali notes, many commentators were suspicious that the AKP’s real plan was to pack the court with its supporters. Yet, she also observes, even these judicial reform measures were not at odds with EU directives. Turkey’s peculiar political landscape produced a strange array of support versus opposition for the referendum: opponents included the center-left Republican People’s Party and other major center-left parties, along with the far-right Nationalist Action; supporters, besides AKP, included a few small, left-wing parties such as the Revolutionary Socialist Workers’ Party (Devrimci Sosyalist İşçi Parti) and the Equality and Democracy Party (Eşitlik ve Demokrasi Partisi). In the end, sufficient numbers of non-AKP voters cast an affirmative ballot to enable the referendum’s passage with a 58 percent majority. European and American observers registered their approbation, with U.S. President Obama offering a congratulatory phone call to Prime Minister Erdogan when the referendum passed.

In June 2014, two 1980 coup leaders, Generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Şahinkaya, were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment (although, due to their advanced age, the men avoided imprisonment). The significance of the trial to many intellectuals once imprisoned by the junta was deeply felt. Well-known journalist Oral Çalışlar stated, “This is the first time those who have staged a coup have been convicted.”

The preceding demonstrates the complexity involved in trying to distinguish a “reformist” from an “illiberal” AKP as recently as 2010. The 1980 coup and resulting illiberal constitution created, at least for a time, a community of interests between Islamist politicians (like the AKP and its predecessors), who wanted the military out of politics for their own purposes, and secular liberals seeking constitutional reform. As scholars have observed, the AKP continued to pursue military-related EU directives well after its commitment to reform in other areas faded.

One of the ironies of July 15, 2016 is that, if the coup attempt was indeed the work of military-based Gülen followers, an intra-Islamist conflict finally sidelined the former self-appointed guardian of the secular regime. But the lead-up to this moment involved a decades-long series of reforms that restricted multiple areas of the military’s political role. The withdrawal of the military from politics, a goal long-sought by reformers and the EU, has unfortunately involved the replacement of the rule of generals with civilian autocracy.

Phyllis H. Jeffrey recently obtained her Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Davis, where her dissertation (“Clearing a Path for the AKP: Articulation Struggles and the Fracturing of Turkey’s Left: 1983-2002”) focused on the political failures of left-wing and Islamic parties in the period prior to the AKP’s emergence.

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