Army 'defends secularism'

Esen Uslu reports from Turkey on the threat of yet another military intervention

The simmering cauldron of politics in Turkey has suddenly reached boiling point. The top brass of the military last week issued a midnight warning to the soft islamist government: behave, or face the consequences. And now prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has succumbed to opposition demands to call an early general election after the constitutional court blocked the selection of his foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, as president of the republic.

The immediate trigger for this latest military intervention was the row over the procedure for selecting the new president. However, we must look beneath the surface to understand the full complexity of the various issues.

2002 elections and AKP government

The soft islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power since late 2002. Its term was due to end with the scheduled elections in November this year, but now Erdogan is proposing they be brought forward to June. In the 2002 elections the AKP got about 34% of the votes cast, but its share of the seats in the Grand National Assembly was disproportionately high at around 66%. The turnout was 79% of those eligible to vote, so real public support for the AKP was only about 26%.

The AKP was established out of the wreckage of the Welfare Party - which itself had been banned by the constitutional court on the grounds that it breached 'secular principles' - after the younger generation of the islamist movement revolted against the old guard. Yet it came to power with the support of only a quarter of the electorate.

The Republican People's Party (CHP) became the parliamentary opposition after winning 19.4% of the votes cast and about 32% of the seats. No other party reached the 10% threshold needed to be represented in parliament, so the remaining nine places in the 550-seat assembly went to independents enjoying the support of either a tribe or a religious sect, mainly in the eastern provinces.

This shambles resulted from the election law designed by the military to deny parliamentary representation to any Kurdish party. And the election law in turn conformed to the constitution imposed on the population in 1982 by the military junta. The so-called 'democratisation process' - restricted to the incorporation of only the most pressing of the European Union's criteria - has not even begun to deal with this anti-democratic corpus of legislation.

As the saying goes, "the trickery of the Ottomans never ends", and some parties found ways to get back into parliament. Elected members switched to other parties in sufficient numbers to allow them representation on parliamentary committees and commissions, as well as entitling them to substantial state subsidies.

Of course, every such move has had a price. After four years of horse-trading, the AKP now has 342 seats, the CHP has 151, the Motherland Party 20, four smaller parties have seven and the independents 11.

Presidential magic number

The distribution of seats is central in one key sense: under the constitution, a two-thirds parliamentary majority is needed to elect the president of the republic in the initial rounds of voting (after a couple of rounds, a simple majority is sufficient). If the parliament fails to appoint a president after four rounds, it is automatically dissolved and an early election is called.

Because the post of president was originally earmarked for the head of junta at a time when the military was transferring power back to civilians, it has a long, seven-year term. The post enjoys substantial powers - the appointment of the top judges and prosecutors, the rectors of universities and members of the Supreme Council of Higher Education (another draconian institution created by the junta) and top bureaucrats. The president also chairs the National Security Council, where the army top brass and inner cabinet ministers come together (this council has been described as the shadow, or real, government). The president also has a limited, but potent power of veto over legislation passed by parliament.

In the past the president has not been afraid to use these powers - in 2001 the deepest financial crisis in Turkey's history was provoked when the current incumbent, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, refused to follow official recommendations to put a halt on the gross financial mismanagement of ministers from four different parties in the stitched up coalition government. He allegedly threw a copy of the constitution at a former prime minister during an NSC meeting.

The president's role assumed even greater importance after the last elections when he emerged as the only person capable of putting the brakes on the AKP government's actions, which were not to the liking of the non-islamist and highly nationalistic military and state bureaucracy - without, that is, resorting to direct intervention by the military, which would not be acceptable to the EU and in some instances even to the US. He sometimes used these powers by blocking appointments and vetoing legislation proposed by the AKP government, and made public utterances about the perils of an islamic state.

As his term of office was due to end before that of the current government, the military and bureaucracy have, since the last election, been constantly agonising over who would succeed him. As the AKP has such a substantial majority in parliament, it was obvious that after the initial rounds it would comfortably be able to elect a new president of its choice, provided it managed to remain in power.

Not very many people gave the AKP government much chance of surviving that long. However, it did  - and the impending crisis drew ever nearer. The opposition was increasingly vocal in calling for early parliamentary elections before the new president was chosen, but up to this week the government had refused. The better than expected economic performance and, despite rough going, the achievement of some progress towards EU membership have enabled the AKP government to survive and even increase its prestige.

All this left the military and state bureaucracy even more edgy. If the AKP appoints Gül or any other president from its own camp, in the view of the military only its own direct intervention could stop the AKP proceeding towards its open-secret intention of converting Turkey into an islamic state. That paranoid fear has become the military's main focus.

Desperate times, ingenious solutions

As part of the drive to prevent this islamist outcome, some top legal minds came up with an ingenious way of calling a halt to the unstoppable march of the AKP.

Their reasoning was that if a two-thirds majority is required to elect the president in the first round, the session of parliament called to elect him must therefore require two-thirds - ie, 376 members - present. So if the parliamentary opposition did not attend the initial sessions, the later rounds, where a simple majority will suffice, would never be reached. If the government and AKP speaker opted to proceed with the session with fewer than 376 MPs present, the opposition could seek redress before the constitutional court - always a big stumbling block for the islamist parties to overcome.

So, by pursuing this line of action, the minority opposition parties were able to force an early election - if the government itself had not given way, an injunction of the constitutional court could well have produced the same result.

Of course, neither the constitution nor parliamentary rules clearly stipulate that minority parties can stop the election process just by staying away. However, in the late 80s and 90s the forerunner of the AKP, the Welfare Party, tried to use the same procedural device as part of its own attempt to block the election of a president - at the time it was brushed aside as nonsense.

This time around the main proponent of the idea was the CHP. For a while it hoped to force the AKP government to agree a compromise candidate acceptable to the military and bureaucracy by threatening to go to the constitutional court. They hoped the court would block the AKP's selection of president without bothering too much about the legal niceties.

Islamist president?

On the other side of the equation, the AKP has long cherished the idea of being able to appoint an islamist to the presidency, which has been barred since the establishment of the republic in the 1920s. The fact that it had clung to power for more than four years blinded it to the risks involved.

The success in maintaining a long-running government was partly dependent on the fact that the AKP 'forgot' one of their key election promises - to remove the ban on headscarves in official premises. Although it had to endure the taunts of islamist women (one of which may roughly be translated as 'We thought you were men - you turned out to be chicken'), the AKP decided not to rock the boat over this issue and compromised with the military-bureaucratic establishment.

Many people - including the representatives of finance capital - were expecting (and many liberals were praying) that it would adopt a similar compromising attitude over the selection of a presidential candidate. The AKP leaders had tried to conceal their hand as long as possible and made noises that seemed to indicate they were about to put forward an acceptable candidate. It correctly believed that anybody nominated in advance would face such overwhelming opposition he would be shredded to pieces before the election.

However, this reluctance was also intended to hide the AKP's own internal divisions. Despite having its roots in the Welfare Party, the AKP is actually a coalition of various rightwing groupings. While many were prepared to compromise, the islamist hard core, representing one third of the AKP MPs around the speaker of parliament, was adamant that only the prime minister, speaker or foreign minister - all founders of the AKP - would be nominated.

Prime minister Erdogan had long realised that he would not be accepted and tried for a compromise candidate, but he was unable to overcome the resistance of the hard core. He knew that if he insisted on a compromise candidate party unity would collapse and in all likelihood the speaker, Bülent Arinà§, would be nominated. The hard core had painted Erdogan into a corner and there was nowhere for him to jump but nominate foreign minister Gül as the least unacceptable candidate under the circumstances.

But Gül's nomination provoked a predictable uproar - not least because his wife is one of the headscarves brigade (she started the move to take Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights over this issue, although she withdrew her application when her husband became prime minister briefly).

A deep disappointment was felt by everybody expecting a compromise candidate. However, as Gül was nominated virtually at the last minute, there were no option but to hold the first parliamentary session to elect the president.

There was pandemonium. The opposition stuck to its guns and refused to take part. When the session was opened by the speaker, the application to halt proceedings was made to the constitutional court.

Successful psych-op

The parliamentary impasse coincided with a well orchestrated extra-parliamentary campaign, linked to the would-be military junta lurking within the armed forces.

The weekly journal Nokta recently published the diaries of an admiral who gave examples of two separate incidents when preparations for a military takeover were underway (Nokta has since been closed down, of course). However, a PowerPoint presentation prepared by members of the junta and disclosing its plans was later published online. The commanders of the navy and gendarmerie have been named amongst those at the core of attempts to organise coups in the last few years. Some of those referred to in these documents are leaders of groups with names like the Society of Ataturkist Thought and amongst them are the organisers of last weekend's huge demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul.

Similar type ex-army people were present at demonstrations denouncing the Armenian writer, Hrant Dink, who was put on trial accused of "discrediting Turkishness" and later killed outside his newspaper office by a teenager with connections to a rightwing militia. Others had been associated with the organisations involved in last year's assassination of a supreme court judge.

One of these organisations held a public swearing-in ceremony for new recruits on TV. The recruits swore on the holy Koran and a handgun placed over the national flag "to fight, kill or be killed" in defence of the Turkish nation. The scene was reminiscent of the initiation ceremony of the officers' organisation, Union and Progress, formed in early 20th century. Union and Progress later took power in a bloody coup, brought the Ottoman empire into World War I and organised the brutal forced evacuation of the Armenian population. Since then, each and every aspiring junta has secretly conducted similar ceremonies.

All this has been part of the psychological operation conducted by the top brass, with the aim of gaining acceptance among larger sections of the population of the role of the military in overseeing civilian rule. The excuse of 'defending secularism' against the islamist threat has found an echo among the masses, with their real fear of islamist ascendancy.

However, in a climate of ever increasing nationalism the same kind of enmity that has been generated against the islamists could just as easily be directed against the Kurds or used to justify a military campaign into Iraqi Kurdistan in order to stop any referendum on future state forms and halt moves towards a Kurdish independent state.

The die cast

The penultimate paragraph of the military's internet statement reads as follows: "In short, all those who oppose the idea of the founder of our republic, the Great Leader Atatürk (Happy the one who can say, 'I am a Turk!'), are enemies of the Republic of Turkey, and they will remain so."

Amongst those deemed the enemies of Turkey were those who took part in the May Day demonstrations commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Istanbul massacre of 36 people on May Day 1977. The city was under siege, and any unauthorised gathering was brutally dispersed.

The ruling class of Turkey has always had a genuine fear of the working class. That fear has been enjoined with other enemies that could be described as the 'three Ks': Kurds, Kizilbash (that is, the Alevi religious minority) and Komünizm. Every time in the history of Turkey that the military has used political islam as a pretext for intervening in civilian politics, the first victims have been one of the 'three Ks'. This time it would be no different.

The intervention process has started. How it would end is anybody's guess. It may be defused by the announcement of early elections or it may lead to a full-blown military takeover.

A slogan raised on the May Day demonstrations was 'Neither the mullah nor the junta'. Turkey's working masses need a genuinely secular democracy, but they are only too aware that in order to achieve it they must not only thwart islamist ambitions, but defeat the threat of military intervention.