The Military and Democracy in Turkey

Which is really ruling Turkey — the military or the government?

March 16, 2001

Which is really ruling Turkey — the military or the government?

Chronic intrigue and crisis girded by an underlying equilibrium have characterized Constantinople, now Istanbul, for two millennia. However high-pitched the political drama here, the lands surrounding Constantinople were usually weaker and less stable.

At the close of the twentieth century, notwithstanding a dispute between secularists and Islamists and a protracted Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast that has claimed nearly forty thousand lives since 1984, Turkey represents the most stable governmental dynasty in world history, with the Turkish soldiery able to trace the roots of its power to the Roman emperors.

Kemal Atatürk’s Turkish Republic, which succeeded the Ottoman sultanate following World War I, was a creation of the military: the sole surviving institution of the Ottoman state and the core of its elite. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s prime minister from 1983 until 1989 and then its president until his death in 1993, became the first civilian leader to chart a bold policy course without the military’s consent.

Ozal privatized the statist economy, creating an entrepreneurial middle class, composed mainly of devout Muslims. Though this troubled the military, the West’s victory in the Cold War and its subsequent insistence on democratic regimes discouraged further coups.

But rather than bring Western-style democracy to Turkey, Washington’s proscription against overt military takeovers in this NATO-member state has had the ironic result of permitting the military a greater, more permanent role in government. Coups, like wars, signify limits — with beginnings and ends.

In the past, when a Turkish general announced a coup, he also promised to hold elections and return the army to its barracks after a designated period. Now the military’s role is more insidious, and it is more likely to become a permanent presence in Turkish politics. As one Turkish analyst told me, “At National Security Council meetings, the generals bring thick dossiers from which to lecture, and the civilian cabinet ministers come as tourists.”

Without actually doing anything official, through a “soft,” “postmodern” process in which one kind of power hid behind the white-lie facade of another, the “deep” military state lying beneath the civilian surface had reasserted itself. It was not deep in a conspiratorial sense but deep in the sense that it was firmly grounded. To middle-class Turks, the generals were not so much generals as Ottoman “pashas,” well-meaning and paternalistic notables.

In Turkey, I realized that the Clinton administration demanded democracy in places that were strategically and economically marginal and where all other alternatives had failed, such as in sub-Saharan Africa. It also recommended democracy in places where a middle-class economy was already highly developed and further growth required more freedom, as in the Pacific Rim.

But in places that were both vital for U.S. energy interests and potentially explosive, like most of the Muslim Middle East, one high-ranking American official told me, “We don’t mention the word democracy.”

Turkey is a case in point. Here democracy is officially proclaimed, but the reality is more complex and the West has held its tongue. Whereas power in the United States is divided among the president, Congress and the Supreme Court, in Turkey it is divided between generals and politicians. But the Turkish military is not a branch of government: It operates more like a powerful lobby that has managed to run government from within.


Adapted from “Eastward to Tartary” by Robert D. Kaplan. Copyright © 2000 by Robert D. Kaplan. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.