Today's date:
Summer 2007

The Limits of Democracy, or "Seizure of the State From Within"

Ali Bayramoglu, one of Turkey's most prominent columnists, writes for Yeni Safak.

Istanbul —The Turkish public is accustomed to the active role the military has taken in political life. The army occupies an autonomous role within the state sphere, plays an important role in political decision-making processes, and structures and controls political power in its capacity as "guardian" of state power.

In truth, the Turkish political order is dominated by an upside-down hierarchy: Military power is exempt from political control, but political power is subordinated to military supervision. "Military guardianship system" is an expression that accurately describes Turkey's normally functioning order.

Nevertheless, there may be times, marked by the direct intervention of the military into politics, when this "guardianship system" turns into "wardship order." The main motive behind these interventions, which occur on average every 10 years, is the fact that the framework of discourse determined by the military as the "official state opinion" is seriously challenged, or, as now, when social and political developments in daily life and politics surpass the limits set by the military, bringing the country to a breaking point.

The Militarism Crisis | In recent months, Turkey has reached such a breaking point.

At first sight, the reason behind this crisis seems to be the near collapse of the dual executive power—a president and a prime minister—model that, according to the military, represents the differentiation between state power and political power.

This model was based upon the existence of a president who, as the representative of the state as a whole, is exempt from political responsibilities but nonetheless is invested with significant political capacities, including the appointment of high-ranking civil bureaucrats and the high court personnel.

When the "presidential castle" was to be passed to the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party), a political uproar was followed by a military intervention. In an announcement, the military stated that it would "fulfill its duties"—that is, take over power if the government was not acting with due regard to the interests of the state.

Such a warning can be classified as a "second-degree coup" in the Turkish political tradition: Though no weapons are fired, the effects are the same. The military's warning, in fact, had its desired consequence. The Constitutional Court took the warning seriously, presidential elections were blocked, and the parliament decided to proceed to general elections.

At this stage, the military has attempted to protect its own political role as guardian by preventing the collapse of the dual executive state vs. politics administrative model through compulsion and threat. Hence, the crisis in Turkey today can be defined as crisis of state governance itself.

The Secularism Crisis | A more intensive look, however, reveals that this crisis of governance in Turkey coexists with a crisis of secularism.

Even though the AKP has been following liberal, reformist and pro-European Union politics throughout the last five years, several issues—such as the Islamic roots of the party cadres; the fact that most of the ministers' wives, including those of the prime minister and the candidate for the presidency, Abdullah Gül, wear the headscarf; and the possibility that AKP could capture both legislative and executive powers—are perceived by the military and secular groups as the "seizure of the state from within."

The reason behind the accelerated deepening of the governance crisis, the legitimization of the military intervention and the mobilization of millions in Ankara and Istanbul is anxiety over the concentration of power in the hands of a political party whose representatives are religious people.

The basic contradiction in contemporary Turkey today can be found at the intersection between these anxious demonstrations and the compulsive fears of the military. Whereas religiosity is bound up with democracy, secularism appears to be bound to militarism.

The perception that religious and provincial power is encroaching upon the waning order of established secular, urban elites does not just concern the character of religious people in Turkish politics; it is also about the intolerance of Turkish laicism.

In Turkey, laicism is still the main source of symbolic criteria that define a citizen who has complete rights; it expresses the economic and cultural monopoly of the societal "center" or core. Those who do not meet these criteria are castigated. For example, young women who wear the headscarf are denied a university education, or religious people are discriminated against as if they were "Negroes" during segregation in the United States.

The Social Crisis | The third aspect of the crisis is social. Turkey is a disintegrated society. The main line of distinction is cultural. There is an ongoing rupture between an elite, urbanized and Westernized center that has tamed religion and a provincial, traditional, religious and Oriental periphery. At least up until the 1980s, political stability and social balance were possible precisely because of the distance between these two groups.

In more recent years, this distance has diminished, causing both encounters as well as conflicts. The encounters have pushed moderate, secular people toward democratization and strict religious people toward secularization; however, some critical moments—whether proposed legislation to criminalize adultery or the right to headscarves—bring conflicts into the foreground. As the social periphery grows stronger and threatens to occupy the center, the conflicts are intensified.

Today, the contact is close and the seizure of the "presidential issue" by the periphery is causing discontent and reaction among the center. Instead of responding with moderation, the center, in its anxiety, has responded with strict laicism and is taking steps to dominate the agenda.

In this respect, the military and the guardianship regime are the most important vehicles of the center, which seems to be imprisoned in its lifestyle anxieties. At the same time, the intolerant center becomes the legitimizing ground for military guardianship.

Seen from this perspective, the recent crisis in Turkey points also to the limits of the Turkish democracy.

Crisis of the Republic | The fourth aspect of the crisis is an historical one. Contemporary Turkey was founded on the homogenization that took place under Islam: The Turkish Greeks were frightened and expelled after the Balkan Wars, Armenians were deported, and Muslims from "lost territories" rushed in.

The Ottoman legacy was, to a great extent, a system in which the non-Muslim elements were eliminated. The Republic had two important projects to direct and shape this legacy.

The first project was to "Turkify" (mostly ethnically) non-Turkish Muslims who were rushing and surging in crowds from the Caucasus, Crimea and Balkans to Anatolia from the 1800s onward. At the beginning of the Republic, these migrants constituted one-third of the whole population.

The second project was to modernize and transform Islam, the main binding element of national unity, through an aggressive laicism that would "tame" the Muslim. Therefore, it was crucial to establish an authoritarian republican administration under the supervision of the military.

Except for the Kurds, who resisted being Turkified, and some religious groups who resisted being tamed through Kemalization, it can be said that these projects were partially successful.

The unsuccessful parts, however, are what shake the entire country today.

The continued existence of Islamic groups and their refusal to perceive Islam as the state prescribes—that is, to be tamed—is a serious failure of the modern Turkish idea. As long as these "dangerous and untamed" social groups continue to grow strong and amass political power through legitimate means, the military and state will be progressively disempowered.

One of the reasons, maybe even the main reason, for the present crisis can be found here. The only exits are obvious: Either the projects of the Republic will change, or they will be implemented through democratic means.