But the government responded to the military’s memorandum in the same strongly worded language, stressing the affiliated status of the Office of the Chief of General Staff to the Prime Ministry.
In short the government declared that the military is not above the law or the government that commands it.
Turkey’s still-powerful military has intervened and interrupted the Turkish political process four times in the 84-year history of the republic. It considers itself the protector of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founder.
The last warning caught many, both Turks and foreigners, by surprise since such a strongly worded military statement was not expected in the 21st century or as Turkey had started accession talks with the EU, despite some recent setbacks. The European club prioritizes democratic governance for members and would-be members alike.
The fifth military warning came in the form of a memorandum, or an ultimatum, on April 27, 2007 through the Web site of the Office of the Chief of General Staff, dubbed by many in Turkey as an “e-mail post-modern coup” or an “e-memo.”
To remind readers of past coups, here is a brief chronology of military interventions in Turkey:
May 27, 1960: Young officers setting up a National Unity Committee staged a military coup on May 26 and 27, 1960, overthrowing the then ruling Democrat Party (DP) in reaction to what they described as the country’s worsening economic situation. This period also saw numerous street protests by university students. The young officers’ coup was also in reaction to what they saw as a loss of prestige of the bureaucracy in general and officers in particular. Officers’ were then termed “Gazozcu (a cheap type of soda) Officers” -- implying that they were only able to afford gazoz to drink due to a loss of income as a result of high inflation. A statement made by then Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, who was hanged after the coup, in which he claimed that he could rule the military with conscripted officers alone, generated fury among the young officers.
Although Turkey’s 1961 constitution followed the coup, it is still regarded as the most democratic constitution that Turkey has ever had. However it also generated strong notions of anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism, resulting in furthering the unequal development of the country. (”Türk Dış Politikası,” Editör Baskın Oran, p. 666, Cilt 1: 1919-1980).
The first seeds leading towards the eventual establishment of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) Pension Fund (OYAK) were sown after the 1960 coup, initially to address the grievances of the underpaid officers and to provide them with a supplementary pension as well as services such as home loans. Today OYAK has emerged as one of Turkey’s largest businesses while junior ranks still complain about not benefiting from its financial resources.
March 12, 1971 memorandum: Eleven years after the first coup in 1961, the Turkish military intervened in politics once again on March 12, 1971. A three-point memorandum was released by then Chief of General Staff Gen. Memduh Tağmaç and the commanders of the air, sea and land forces urged the government to take measures to re-establish law and order in the country, which had been engulfed in economic difficulties, with the public forced to queue outside markets to buy basic foodstuffs such as sugar and bread. The memorandum also sought the establishment of a new government to implement Kemalist (named after Turkey’s founder) reforms and to implement revolutionary laws -- in reference to the adoption of secular principles set forth by Kemalist views. Otherwise the military was determined to rule the nation directly, under the laws that place the military in the role of protector of the nation, added the memo. (”Turkiye’de Ordu ve Siyaset,” William Hale, p. 160).
The March 12, 1971 memorandum was read out over state radio at 1:00 p.m.
Student leaders Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan and Hüseyin İnan were hanged on charges of “violating the Constitution” during the course of the coup.
As can be seen, the military’s concern over any infringement of the secular character of the nation has always been there, though the main reasons for the military’s intervention in Turkish political life in the three military coups mainly stemmed from the worsening situation in law and order, affecting both the economy and the military.
Sept. 12 coup was worse
Sept. 12, 1980 coup: This was perhaps the worst coup in the sense that the Constitution prepared after and approved through a referendum in 1982 introduced severe restrictions on freedom of speech and inflicted a heavy blow to leftist ideologies. Those were the years during which the ban on women wearing headscarves attending university emerged as a hot debate. The 1980 coup, which seized authority, ending civilian rule, came despite the fact that the military had already declared a state of emergency in various parts of the country two years before the coup, with the aim of securing law and order at a time when the nation was witnessing the worse leftist and rightist student violence, both on the streets and in the universities. The 1980 coup also resulted in the depoliticization of the public.
Professor Baskın Oran, in the book on Turkish foreign policy which he also edited, quotes a speculation at the time that the both leftist and rightist demonstrators were in fact not the real players. The ideological violence was in fact accelerated purposefully by the dark forces existing within the state that were seeking to interrupt civilian democratic life and which sought to provoke the military, Oran claims.
The 1980 coup also came against a backdrop of rising Kurdish nationalism; the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was set up in 1984.
Feb. 28, 1997: This is the first coup to be termed a “post-modern coup” by its architects; it was staged by the military to overthrow a coalition government led by pro-Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. A long list of decisions, called the Feb. 28 decisions, were adopted by the then Parliament, including the establishment of a compulsory eight-year uninterrupted primary and secondary education in an attempt to prevent students enrolling in religious schools after the completion of primary school.
It is dubbed “post-modern” because the then coalition government was forced to resign through a campaign led by the military using the media, NGOs and academics as a propaganda tool, rather than directly intervening in the political process.
The coalition governments set up after the Feb. 28 coup failed to address the country’s serious economic problems, which culminated with the devastating February 2001 economic crisis. In November 2002, the ruling AK Party came to power. This is the same party that was warned late on April 27 with a statement, dubbed a memorandum, not to elect a so-called pro-Islamic president to a post widely seen as the continuation of Atatürk’s secular legacy.
It is worth noting that Turkey is rumored to have escaped two coup attempts, codenamed Sarıkız and Ayışığı, in 2004 which the then Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Özkök is said to have prevented. These plans were revealed in what was alleged to be the diaries of former Navy Commander Adm. Özden Örnek, published by now defunct newsweekly Nokta, closed down almost two weeks ago following a military prosecutor’s request from the Interior Ministry for an investigation into the magazine.
Örnek denied the existence of the diaries, while retired Gen. Özkök neither denied nor confirmed the existence of the failed coup attempts against AK Party rule. But current Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt hinted during an April 12 press conference that he would not take the matter to the military court, due to a lack of evidence.
This is despite the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had earlier stated that coup attempts are a violation of the constitution, urging the prosecutors to act in line with the news reports.