This headline called on civilians to take action against the allegedly rising threat of Islamism in the country and not leave the job of toppling the coalition government, led by the Islamist-leaning Welfare Party (RP), to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
In the run-up to the Feb. 28 coup, the media played a role in preparing a suitable environment for the coup. The media was then controlled by two conglomerates, belonging to Aydın Doğan and Dinç Bilgin. Before the coup, the media ran a large number of stories warning about Islamic fundamentalism to lay the groundwork for a military intervention. The media’s black propaganda against the RP government eventually resulted in the government’s collapse.
A closer look at the history of military interventions and coups in Turkey has revealed that civilians from the academic world, the media, journalism and the judiciary played significant roles in preparing the ground for military takeovers, a situation which, according to observers, results from the desire of these civilians to maintain their privileges over other social groups.
The history of the role of civilians in the process leading up to military coups goes back to 1960, when Turkey witnessed the first of several military coups in its history. That coup resulted in the execution of then-Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two of his ministers. Although the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and pro-CHP journalists and lawyers were aware of the coup preparations beforehand, they did not reveal these plans.
Turkey witnessed large-scale student protests prior to the 1960 coup. The protests started at İstanbul University in April 1960, and quickly spread to other campuses. Clashes between student groups and security forces led to the declaration of martial law in İstanbul and Ankara, and all universities and vocational colleges were closed down for one month. On May 27, 1960, the military overthrew Menderes’ government. Menderes and his fellow Democrat Party (DP) members were tried in 14 separate cases on Yassıada, an island in the Sea of Marmara. The judges overseeing the case handed down three death penalties, 12 life sentences and hundreds of long-term imprisonments. Menderes, Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu and Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan were executed on Sept. 16, 1961.
Political scientist Belgin Yazıcı has pointed out that pro-coup generals and urban elites acted in cooperation following the 1960 military coup. She says this cooperation is now collapsing, and some civilians who used to benefit from cooperating with the military are disturbed by their new position.
A meeting which took place between then-Land Forces Commander Gen. İlker Başbuğ and Constitutional Court Vice President Osman Paksüt in 2008, 10 days before the Supreme Court of Appeals chief prosecutor filed a closure case against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), takes its place among the list of military-civilian collaborations in support of anti-democratic actions in the country. Başbuğ became the chief of General Staff later that year. The Taraf daily, which exposed the March 4 meeting, claimed the entire floor where the general’s office is located was cleared and security cameras turned off prior to Paksüt’s arrival for the meeting, which lasted more than an hour. Paksüt twice denied the meeting had taken place; after the Taraf story, however, Paksüt explained he had visited the general to congratulate him on the military’s late-February cross-border ground operation into northern Iraq, and to offer his condolences on the loss of 27 troops. He also suggested that the emergence of this story three months after the fact indicated he had been under surveillance at the time, and claimed that there were efforts afoot to convince the public that ties existed between the Constitutional Court and the General Staff.
A reference to this meeting made its way into the WikiLeaks cables, in which US diplomats in Turkey said: “Turks have long believed the deep state exists. The Paksüt-Başbuğ meeting is one of the few acknowledgments of shady inter-institutional liaisons -- made all the more so by Paksüt’s multiple denials before his admission. Increasingly over the past year, the judiciary, often encouraged by the opposition CHP and perhaps others, has stepped in to act as a check on the elected government through rulings, public announcements, or superficially routine speeches. This meeting -- which occurred 10 days before the chief prosecutor initiated closure proceedings against the AK Party -- is being evaluated in that light. Secrecy and defensiveness surrounding a ‘routine’ meeting demonstrate the disregard elements of the bureaucratic elite have for democratic boundaries and public transparency.”
According to Associate Professor Berat Özipek, privileged social groups in Turkey have always supported military coups when they felt that their interests were threatened. He says that although these people, who act as the shield of the regime of military tutelage, have lost their power and influence to a certain extent today, it can’t be said that they have completely lost their power. “The moment when these civilians are tested for their democratic credentials will be when democratization is under threat. I hope we will never experience such a moment,” he says.
Thousands of people who believed the Turkish Republic was under threat took to the streets across Turkey in 2007 for “Republican Rallies,” which were anti-government rallies to protest the AK Party’s nomination of a presidential candidate in the 2007 presidential elections. These rallies were held soon after the General Staff released a memorandum against the AK Party government on April 27, 2007. In the memorandum, the military threatened to intervene in politics due to its suspicions that the AK Party’s presidential nominee, Abdullah Gül, lacked secular credentials. It later turned out that the Republican Rallies were organized by some civilians at the order of former Gendarmerie Commander Gen. Şener Eruygur, with the goal of preparing the ground for a military takeover.
According to Professor Tanel Demirel, seeking legitimacy for a coup is as important as staging a coup for the Turkish military. “In each of its interventions in politics, the Turkish military has played off different segments of society against each other. When the military tries to gain support for a coup, it naturally wins the support of one social segment against another, toward which the first has taken a negative stance. If there is still respect for the military in Turkey, this is because the military does not get directly involved in clashes with the public, in contrast to the situation in South American countries,” Demirel says.
In May, in a move that surprised many, a veteran Turkish journalist, Mehmet Ali Birand, wrote a column in which he made striking confessions about the contribution of the mainstream media to the military in its undemocratic practices over the years. In this column, titled “Yes: We had pro-coup thoughts in our genes,” Birand said: “For us [for a majority of members of the secular central media], the priority did not belong to democracy or Parliament. The General Staff was more important than both. And this was quite normal. This was the way we were raised. Pro-coup thought penetrated our [journalistic] genes without our even noticing it. We would unquestionably acknowledge the superiority of our commanders. We would watch the shimmer of their uniforms both with admiration and fear. We tolerated all coups. And we supported them.”
According to Birand, it has always been Turkey’s secular circles that pushed and encouraged the military to stage coups. When asked why this was, he gave a direct and short answer: “In order not to share the cake with others,” meaning that the secular [and generally more affluent] segment of Turkish society has always wanted to enjoy its privileges without sharing them with the middle class.
Although there have been numerous cases in which civilians have played a role in supporting military involvement in Turkish politics, a government-sponsored constitutional reform package, which was approved with the support of 58 percent of the vote in a public referendum last year, came as the biggest blow to date to the civilian leg of the country’s system of military interference in government, causing most of the state’s institutions to withdraw to within their natural boundaries.