The Turkish military has intervened on several occasions to restore order in volatile political climates. The interventions have never been about seizing power but rather they have been about restoring peace and prevent consolidation of power at the hands of corrupt governments. The 1960 coup against the Menderes regime illustrates the military’s commitment to democratic principles.
The military intervened in 1960 because the Democratic Party instilled repressive measures on the Turkish population. For example, they censored the press, arbitrarily retired court judges and professors, started regulating opposition political parties (RPP) and violating civil liberties by arresting journalists and students. Although the 18-month intervention did not bring about major political and social reforms, it ensured that the subsequent coalition government, the National Unity Committee, was able to institute a new constitution and other democratic reforms.
Likewise, the 1980 coup illustrated the military’s commitment to maintaining peace and order to ensure the proper execution of democratic principles. The military intervened to restore order in a Turkey that was rapidly experiencing political anarchy and plunging into a civil war. The government’s inability to restore order, the devaluation of the Turkish lira, and the severe political fragmentation within coalition government (Justice Party and RPP’s inability to decide upon a Presidential candidate) forced the military to step in.
Although the military remained in power for two years, they instituted more thorough reforms to ensure future military interventions unnecessary. A new constitution was created, the central government was given more power and the legal system was overhauled. The 1960 and the 1980 coups illustrated the need for the military institution of Turkey to play the role of a safeguard until strong democratic foundations were entrenched in the civilian, political life of Turkey.
The military’s success at repeatedly restoring order and bringing forth democratic reforms is a testament to its commitment to democracy in Turkey.
The military itself does not always institute democratic reforms so much as it facilitates climates where civilian governments could initiate reforms. The four coups were mainly recalibrations of the politics in Turkey. Although the coups temporarily disbanded civil liberties and political institutions, they served to allow the people of Turkey to figure out through trial and error the right balance of secular democracy and traditional principle that they were comfortable with. What makes the Turkish military exceptional is its Kemalist commitment to professionalism and separation of military and political life. This along with the military’s willingness to bow to popular will of the people (i.e. allowing an Islamist Party [Justice and Development) to remain in power and carry out traditional reforms despite their secularist principals) illustrates that it has served as a major vehicle for Turkish democracy.
Likewise, the Islamist Party has also played a major role in consolidating the tradition of democratic rule in Turkey. They did so by garnering enough popular support to do away with the corrupt, inefficient coalition governments of the past. The Welfare Party gathered momentum by filling in the vacuum left behind by coalition governments in the areas of welfare distribution and by mobilizing grassroots organizations. They sought support from the urban poor; the small entrepreneurs hurt industrialization and the devout religious constituency of central and eastern Turkey. Most importantly, they gave the citizens of Turkey an option of a “protest vote” against previous governments.
The Welfare Party under Erbakan introduced key ideas that was unusual for religious party platforms but nonetheless bridged the gap between democratic principles and theocratic morals. For example, the party pushed for an Islamic model of modernity by joining the European Customs Union, thereby orienting itself with the West, signing two treaties with Israel, embracing free market principles and allowing free information flow for public political discourse. Although the last point, free information flow, eventually led to a fourth military coup and Welfare Party’s demise, the fact that Erbakan’s government did not try to control the media set a precedent for democratic principles among future Islamic Parties.
The demise of the Welfare Party served as a warning to future religious parties to further liberalize their religious views and accept the secularist and democratic sentiments of the Turkish population in order to remain in power. Welfare’s successor, the Virtue Party, illustrates this point. The Virtue Party, led by former Welfare politicians, supported Turkey’s entrance into the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Furthermore, they expanded basic civil rights and democratic values by amending the constitution. However, Virtue Party was not able to fully disengage from Welfare’s core principles and reform their ideas and faced the same fate as the Welfare Party.
The failures of Welfare and Virtue Party serve as a sharp contrast to the successes of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although AKP is an Islamist Party, just like it’s predecessors, it is distinguished by the reformist mentality of the younger generation. The AKP committed itself to international human rights doctrines, which were previously ignored by Turkish governments because of their “western” ideologies. The AKP also expanded women’s rights by promoting the equal rights principles of secularism, declared “zero tolerance” for torture, outlawed capital punishment, recognized some cultural rights of Kurdish minorities and limiting the military’s influence in politics. These policies, along with the decisive push to enter Turkey into the European Union, has made the AKP Party more palpable to the secularist, democratic values of the Turkish population.
The irony of Ataturk’s secular Turkey finding the right balance of democracy in an Islamist regime makes Turkish democracy all the more compelling. It is under the Islamists regime that Turkey is finally able to unite and vote in a clear majority party in government which allowed it to carry out political reforms without impediments from factional dissent. Furthermore, the military’s strong guardian role in Turkish politics ensured that the new Islamist government did not do away with its commitments to democracy and propelled Turkey to a more democratic nation than it has been in the past. The military and the Islamist party serve in complimentary roles to ensure Turkish democracy by making sure that neither one oversteps the boundaries of legitimate power in Turkey.