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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 31 New Delhi July 23, 2016

Turkey: A Nation in Turmoil

Tuesday 26 July 2016

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

Turkey has been a nation in turmoil. It is beset with one crisis after another ever since the beginning of the civil war in Syria—with which it shares a border—in March 2011. It has been grappling with the fallout of the Syrian civil war, primarily the influx of millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the wanton brutality at home as also their usage of Turkey as a gateway to Europe, its recent involvement in Syria as a part of the Western (mainly American) strategy to counter the terrorist onslaughts of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East and Europe—especially in Turkey itself—and finally the failed coup attempt by a section of the Turkish armed forces on July 15, 2016. The country is yet to recover from the shock of the failed coup attempt which had almost toppled the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In order to place the present travails of the Turkish nation in a proper perspective it is necessary to take a brief look into its recent past. The Republic of Turkey, in its present form, was established on October 29, 1923. The destiny of modern Turkey was shaped by Mustafa Kemal, an officer in the armed forces of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. It was Mustafa Kemal who rejuvenated the Turkish people by providing leadership of the highest calibre in the darkest hour of the nation. In his quest for nation-building Mustafa Kemal was convinced that in order to find its feet in the modern era, Turkey needed to make a clean break with her long and chequered past history. The solution of Turkey’s problems lay in a process of Westernisation which involved the integration of Turkey, on the basis of equality, in the modern Western world. Therefore, notwithstanding the fact that the larger part of the country was located in Asia, Kemalist Turkey chose to look West rather than East in its quest for a new identity. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed during the Cold War, Turkey was dragooned into the alliance by the United States and Britain on the pretext of providing security to Ankara against the so-called designs of its giant neighbour in the north, the Soviet Union. After the European Economic Community (EEC) was formed in 1958, Turkey became an associate member of the organisation and under the Ankara Agreement of 1963 Turkey was slated to become a full member by 1995. However, this has remained a pipe dream and the country is still far away from full membership due to various reasons which we need not go into here. (Purusottam Bhattacharya: 2008: 390)

Another notable feature that was initiated by Mustafa Kemal (known in Turkey as ‘Ataturk’—the father of the Turkish people) was the secularisation and modernisation of the Turkish republic. The Grand National Assembly passed a bill on March 3, 1924 making Turkey a secular republic. Consequently a series of measures were introduced which ended state support to religious institutions; a new civil code was adopted, based on the Swiss Civil Law with suitable modifications; a penal code, based on the Italian model; and a new commercial code, based on those of several countries. The system of pardah (veil) for women and the fez cap for men was abolished; the Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet.

An interesting point to note here is the fact that the Turkish Army has intervened in the political process of the country since its inception at least four times— in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, twice directly (1960 and 1980) by replacing the elected governments and in others (1971 and 1997) by bringing down civil governments by means of ultimatum and pressure tactics. (Mujib Alam: 2008: 403) Mustafa Kemal, himself a military man, wanted a depoliticised and politically neutral army in the newly created republic. Therefore the Army was put in a secondary position in the political system and its functions were limited to implementation of defence policies only. (Mujib Alam: 2008: 410) However, the process of secularisation had taken deep roots within the Turkish Army which came to look upon itself as a repository of the secular Turkish state. This was first manifest in May 1960 when, sensing that as a result of political upheavals (the oppressive policies of the then government and its increasing emphasis on religion undermining the strict Kemalist principles), the Army felt that the basic principles of secularism were in danger and it intervened to overthrow the then government in power. (Mujib Alam: 2008: 411)

The Constitution of the Republic, originally promulgated in 1924, underwent a significant modification. In the new dispensation special emphasis was given on the protection of secularism and the secularist legacy of the Kemalist state besides guaranteeing a wide range of civil rights and freedoms and the introduction of a pluralist democracy.

In September 1980 the Army intervened in Turkish politics once again following large scale political and economic chaos, the ineffectiveness of the police force in dealing with sectarian violence and the sudden resurgence of Islamic militancy. A new Constitution was drafted and approved in a popular referendum in November 1982. The new Constitution considerably increased the powers of the President and introduced some repressive measures targeted against Left-wing groups and certain basic trade union rights. However, in spite of the three military interventions in Turkish politics since 1960, the electoral process, on the whole, remained trans-parent and credible. Not only were elections held at regular intervals but they also resulted in change of governments and the transfer of power smoothly. People’s participation in the electoral process has also been at a high level.

The situation in Turkey began to take a dramatic turn with the rise of political Islam from the early 1990s following the victory of the Welfare Party (WP) or the Refah Party (RP) led by Necmettin Erbakan in the 1994 local elections and the subsequent national elections in 1995. The Refah Party had a radical political discourse which was seen as a development of great concern not only within the Army but also among the intellectuals of the Turkish society at large. Refah’s victory in the 1995 general elections and its subsequent accession to power was viewed as a genuine threat to republican values and civil peace. The MGK—an entity set up by the 1961 Constitution through which the military could keep an eye on the civil administration during the following decades—issued a memorandum on February 28, 1997 asking the Erbakan Government to take some steps which would have contained the further rise of political Islam. Realising that the implementation of these steps would negatively affect the RP’s core electoral base which was essentially Islamic in nature, Erbakan resigned from power. The subsequent governments, together with the MGK, kept on containing the rise and spread of political Islam; however, a new situation arose after the European Union’s decision in 1999 to accept Turkey as a candidate country and Turkey’s declaration of its intent to comply with the acqui communnaire (EU laws) leading to a tremendous transformation in civil-military relations in the country. The EU asked for substantial reforms in Turkey’s political system which entailed, among others, curbing the powers of the military. Thereafter a consensus emerged among the civilian and military circles for a minimal role of the military which began to accept its subordination to the civilian government. “The reasons for this change might be explained with reference to concrete developments like the normalisation of internal security conditions, consolidation of political stability and the impact of increased dialogue with the major global actors and international organisations.” (Mujib Alam: 2008: 413) In November 2002 the Islamist-based Justice and Welfare Party (AK) won a landslide victory though it promised to stick to the secular principles of the Constitution. Thereafter the AKP Government developed harmonious relations with the military even for sensitive issues like the UN-backed settlement plan on the Cyprus issue, the US-led war on Iraq etc. “This can be seen as a significant change in the institutional outlook of the TAF (military) in the sense that unlike its previous role it started to remain neutral in the civilian affairs accepting the subordination to the civilian government.” (Mujib Alam: 2008: 414) Increased prospects for EU membership, along with the above-mentioned developments, helped successive governments in Turkey to introduce some measures of reform to ensure democratic control over the armed forces.

Since 2002 the AKP led by Erdogan has tightened its control over the government and the country. However, its rule has not gone unchallenged altogether. Erdogan, who has a political Islamist background (he has rejected modern Turkey’s secular heritage), has increasingly resorted to repressive measures, especially against those who have challenged his authority. He started his career in the government as the Prime Minister but became the first directly elected President in August 2014. A strong, dominant, charismatic personality in Turkish politics for over a decade-and-a-half, Erdogan is considerably responsible for turning Turkey into a regional hotbed in recent years. Apart from taking an extremely hard line against the Kurdish PKK (the outfit which is fighting for a separate Kurdistan in Turkey’s South-East), Erdogan involved Turkey, mostly at the behest of the United States, in the Syrian civil war by openly backing the Islamist opposition of Syrian President Basher-el-Assad. There was of course provocation for Turkey as millions of Syrian refugees have been streaming into the country as many of them try to make their way into Europe to escape the nightmare at home and in search of a better life. The EU struck a deal with Turkey in late 2015 which promised to restrict the flow of migrants to Europe through its territory in exchange for euro 3 billion and an acceleration in talks for Turkey’s entry into the EU.

Following the emergence of the ISIS, Turkey has become a target of the Islamic radicals. Scores of attacks on major Turkish cities, especially Istanbul and Ankara, have left hundreds dead and thousands injured in the past few years. The PKK has also mounted a terrorist offensive leaving many dead and injured. Ankara has also got into a spat with Russia, its second largest trading partner, after Turkish forces shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border late in 2015 inviting economic sanctions from Moscow. The Turkish tourist industry (a major source of earning for its economy) is reeling from the impact of the recent terrorist attacks, especially on Istanbul.

Turkey has a special position because of its geo-strategic location as a bridge between Europe and Asia, since it is a leading member of the NATO and as President Erdogan and his AK Party are taking an increasingly keen interest in the Sunni-led governments in the region. Some commentators see a major departure from the Kemalist legacy on the part of Turkey in recent years. The West sees Turkey as a part of the solution to the troubles plaguing the region. The EU is banking upon Turkey to stem the tide of refugees into Europe. However, Turkey itself is now in deep trouble as already discussed above. The attempted coup by sections of the armed forces (who issued a statement announcing the takeover which said that democratic and secular rule of law had been eroded by the current government) can be seen as a desperate bid to save Turkey from the turmoil and chaos into which it has descended in the last few months. However, the irony is that the failed coup might further strengthen President Erdogan whose mass support was clearly demonstrated in the spontaneous show of solidarity with him from a cross-section of the Turkish people during and in the aftermath of the coup attempt. It is clear from these developments that the armed forces are no longer the arbiter of Turkey’s destiny and however flawed, its democracy has struck deep roots and will be the backbone of the Turkish nation for the foreseeable future.


1. F. Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey, London, 1993.

2. Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, Oxford University Press, 1968.

3. E.J. Zurcher, Turkey: A Modern History, London/New York, 1993.

4. Mujib Alam, “The Recent Democratic Reforms in Turkey: Implications for the Military’s Role in Politics and Society”, in Rajendra M. Abhyankar (ed.), West Asia and the Region: Defining India’s Role, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008.

5. Purusottam Bhattacharya, “In Pursuit of a European Identity: Turkey and the European Union” in Rajendra M. Abhyankar (ed.), West Asia and the Region: Defining India’s Role, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008.

6. Aswini K. Mahapatra, “Turkey’s Democracy as a Model for the Arab World” in Rajendra M. Abhyankar (ed.), West Asia and the Region: Defining India’s Role, Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2008.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya, a retired Professor of International Relations, is the erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata and currently a Visiting Professor of Political Science, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.