There has been a visible tradition in the Turkish state system since the 17th century in the Ottoman Empire in which the holders of arms did not recognize the civilian authority.
This tradition was influential in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and has remained the biggest obstacle before Turkey’s attempts to achieve the standards of Western countries. The uprisings of the Janissaries had mostly gone beyond regular riots and, in most cases, claimed the lives of administrators.
That the Ottoman military ignored its actual mission and was involved in political affairs is one of the primary reasons for the defeat of the Ottoman state in the 19th and 20th centuries. In an attempt to address this problem, the Ottoman administration abolished the Janissary order in 1826 and called this incident the “Auspicious Incident” (Vaka-yı Hayriye). However, the nation failed to rid itself of the impact of the pro-guardianship mentality as it was an issue of mentality rather than an institutional problem. Abdulhamid II was removed from the throne, big mistakes were committed in domestic and foreign policy spheres, the state was involved in World War II and its aftermath, and the state started to collapse. During the republican era, the military staged coups and interventions; but, those times, instead of sultans, a prime minister and ministers of the Republic of Turkey were executed.
It should be recalled that the culture of disobedience in Turkey is not limited to some institutions or individuals. The culture of disobedience exists as a form of mindset. A review of the whole picture will reveal that the actual issue is a mindset problem. This mentality that does not recognize democracy, the culture of the nation, the faith of the people and their lifestyle and the history of the nation and assumes a mission to struggle with the values of the nation is existent within all state institutions -- all segments of society, the business world, the media, universities, the police and the judiciary. However, the military has been more extensively exploited because it enjoys an autonomous standing, is favored in terms of legal protection and holds power in terms of arms. The military stages coups because it holds arms, but the media, provoking and supporting the coups, the politicians who invite military servicemen to take action, the universities that applaud militarism and other actors should not be overlooked.
The issue is relevant to the mindset of those who fail to comprehend and internalize democracy and reconcile with the national values. In Turkey, civilian authorities were discredited, their image was undermined and they were not allowed to be powerful even though they were elected by the popular vote. In addition to measures to make sure they would not have control over the state apparatus, the images of Parliament, civilian administrations and politicians were eroded through conspiracies, political assassinations, incidents of crisis and chaos.
Not trusting civilian politics
There are different factors in the emergence of this mindset. Above all, because of the method and style employed by military schools when training cadets, military personnel who had received this training would not trust people outside of their institutions and would take a paranoid approach. This mindset of not trusting civilian politics, of viewing the people as illiterate and ignorant and of perceiving others as enemies is one of the primary and fundamental sources of this issue. In addition, military compounds and facilities isolate military personnel from the people and daily life as well as effective interaction with society. As a result, military personnel, who lead a life detached from popular beliefs and tendencies as well as sensitivities and see themselves as superior to ordinary people, assume a duty to interfere with the political administration.
In a country like Turkey, where a number of military interventions and coups have taken place in the past, every sign of attempts to stage a coup should be taken seriously and addressed effectively. In such a case, the issue should be carefully reviewed, the responsible actors should be held accountable, proper investigations should be carried out and solutions should be sought to secure advanced democracy and lifestyles for the people.
When the recently exposed coup plans were discussed publicly, some sorts of misinformation and confusion were also observed. Coups and interventions were not staged against civilian administrations and people alone; they were also staged against the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). In an institution where the command chain is extremely important and individuals belonging to this institution take huge risks under this chain of command, it has been observed in the past that some illegal interventions took place to remove generals, military officers and even the chief of staff, as in the May 27, 1960 military coup. These attempts and interventions seriously eroded the image, discipline and prestige of the military and weakened its strength and ability to carry out its actual missions. The Balyoz (Sledgehammer) plan also envisaged the removal of a number of military officers from the military in an attempt to ensure harmony within the military and to facilitate the coup process. In general, a look at the bigger picture would reveal that all people were victims of the coups and that we all paid the price.
The recently exposed coup plans indicate that there are serious problems with respect to the maturity of politics, the achievement of full democracy, the rule of law and transparency and that we are still paying the economic, political, social and legal prices associated with anti-democratic interventions in Turkey. There are still problems with respect to obedience of the civilian authority by the civilian and military bureaucracy. After extensive experience, we now realize that uncontrolled power is not proper power and that in the absence of transparency and checks, some individuals may get in touch with illegal organizations. They would even kill their own pashas and stage conspiracies against their own countries.
Now we are seeing some coup plans exposed. The questions as to why these plans are being exposed now and not in the past may be raised by the people. Above all, it should be noted that there were similar attempts in the past to bring coup attempts to the attention of the judiciary. However, such attempts remained inconclusive because the judiciary was not impartial and independent in the past and the media was not pluralist and diverse. Because of this, instead of pro-junta figures, the officers (Samet Kuşçu) or the prosecutors (Ferhat Sarıkaya) who dealt with the coup plans and allegations were prosecuted. On the contrary, owing to the diverse media outlook and empowerment of the judiciary by authorities to act independently and impartially, the coup plans are now being exposed to the public.
On the other hand, spring does not arrive with a few flowers; likewise, interventions with democracy cannot be prevented by the isolated attempts of some intellectuals, journalists and politicians. Popular resistance against the interventions was weakened by different factors, including poor pluralism, a lack of integration with the world and others. However, there are many people in different institutions and segments of society who are democrats, able to read global events properly and recognize the values and tendencies of the people. The huge transformation in communication and transportation technologies has taken radio, TV, Internet, phone and newspapers to every part of the world. In addition, the number of people traveling to other countries has increased because of improvements in economic conditions; this has raised awareness among people who now know the world and follow global developments. Today, even people who were previously belittled for having menial jobs are able to make comparisons and inferences and offer proper comments. Our citizens are now mature enough not to be convinced by bold statements and clichés. Because they are integrated with the world, our people will not accept a second-class democracy, education system or healthcare system. And, for this reason, our people are uncomfortable with interventions in the democratic order.
Costs associated with the continuation of the issue
Issues that can be traced back to the times when coups were staged reappear as immature democracy and politicians, economic crises, terrorism, separatism, brain drain, underdevelopment and inactive foreign policy. If there is no action to deal with the pro-coup mindset, the prices to be paid could be listed as follows:
1. Every coup has done extensive damage to the country, taking it backwards. Those who demanded Shariah order by exploiting religion during the Ottoman era and those who overthrew the sultan with references to human rights, minority rights and more freedoms became more repressive after they came to power. Likewise, during the republican era, after coups were made in reference to Kemalism and secularism, the image of the country was greatly damaged in terms of its human rights record, prestige and economic development. As far as the present time is concerned, a probable coup in Turkey, which is moving forward to become a global power again, would lead to serious losses and damage in economy, security, social integrity and foreign policy as well as raise concerns and distrust among the people regarding democracy and advancements.
2. Coup eras are periods during which power is exercised illegally and disproportionately. During these periods, millions of people are repressed and silenced. The plans revealed in recent times referred to 200,000 people who had been arrested or detained in İstanbul alone. Such extreme measures strongly influence society and a huge number of people, disrupt social harmony and cause serious traumas and suffering.
3. Because practices and mechanisms of transparency and accountability are destroyed in coup periods, illegalities and abuses may be observed in these periods. Those who hold power and arms and acquire power through a reliance on arms would act as they want and take extreme measures, including making amendments to the Constitution, to make sure they would not be held accountable. For this reason, if there is a coup, the steps previously taken towards a first class democracy and transparency would be destroyed and the progress that has been made towards further democratization would be reversed.
4. The civilian political establishment, which would need to consider the constant threat of a coup, would not be able to take bold steps; at least some political parties would consider aligning with the pro-coup mentality because of the potential gains from such collaboration. Politicians and political actors would not be able to gain strength, become self-confident and take the necessary steps for the reforms that Turkey needs. Thinking about the threat of a coup alone would make politicians review their decisions all the time. Discouraged politicians and administrators would not be able to take bold steps. The coups have prevented Turkish politicians and political institutions from maturing and proving their abilities. They led to the emergence of cowardly politicians. One of the biggest obstacles before the reforms the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) wanted to implement was this type of politician and style of opposition. For the improvement of political style and the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, there should be no reference to coups at all and the guardianship over civilian politics should be lifted once and for all.
5. Even the persistence of coup rumors will erode the recently ascended image of Turkey, achieved thanks to bold reforms in the last decade, and will lead to the emergence of an image and perception of a primitive state where repressive regimes and administrations are in power.
6. A political ban -- a ban on using the Kurdish language -- was effected by a coup administration; this ban strongly undermined Turkey’s image in international platforms, but once democracy gained strength and was further consolidated, the issue was resolved immediately and the ban was lifted. A possible coup would lead to serious schisms between people from different backgrounds over the Kurdish issue. The growth of the current terrorism issue and the current stage in the problem is a product of similar coup periods.
7. The biggest mistakes in domestic politics and foreign policy have been committed during coup periods. In addition to the ban on the Kurdish language, the poor human rights record and the torture that was committed during such periods, investments made during the republican era -- industrial facilities and infrastructure works -- were reversed by coups. Moreover, serious mistakes were committed in foreign policy: The readmission of Greece to NATO and the postponement of EU membership were all done in coup periods. These mistakes still have impacts on current foreign policy.
8. As an extension of the coup periods, privileged groups and institutions emerged that have remained immune to legal prosecution. The Constitution and the have laws provided a state in which the military enjoys privileges and immunities that cannot be acceptable in a regular democracy. For instance, the Turkish Armed Forces Assistance Center (OYAK) was created in the aftermath of the 1960 coup and is Turkey’s largest privately owned pension provider. OYAK, which still enjoys the privileges it acquired back then, has become one of the biggest holdings in Turkey and has preserved its privileged status outside of regular market conditions. During the coup periods, the overall economic situation got worse and the privileged minorities became richer.
9. Past coups did extensive damage to our economy; today, even reports that a coup may take place have serious impacts on the stock exchange, potential investments and foreign trade. In other words, rumors of coups continue doing extensive harm to our economy.
*Professor İdris Bal is an AK Party deputy