Turkey: Another Military Coup in the Making?
May 01, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


Tension between Turkey's Islamic-led coalition government and the secular military has risen sharply following the war in Iraq. A recent statement by Turkey's National Security Council raises the question of whether a military coup might again be possible.


A series of events in recent days has revealed rising tensions between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-based Justice and Development Party (AK) and the staunchly secular military. The week culminated with the monthly National Security Council (MGK) meeting, where officials said Turkey's strictly secular system should be "carefully protected."

The military has intervened to unseat four governments in Ankara since 1960, including Turkey's first Islamic government in 1997. The MGK's statement, in the wake of the war in Iraq and damaged Turkish-U.S. relations, might signal that the military's patience with the AK has worn thin, and that it is willing to force the government to change its behavior.

After a regular monthly meeting on April 30 between Turkey's civilian and military leadership, the MGK released a statement citing secularism as one of the basic principles of the Turkish state -- and stressed the need to protect it. The statement comes amid rising tensions between the army and the ruling AK party, which came to power in November and has been criticized of late for allegedly appointing pro-Islamists to government offices and supporting an Islamist group believed to be promoting extremism.

A face-off between the AK and the military has been brewing since Erdogan's party took power. Though both sides were distracted during the war in Iraq, it seems a confrontation is now at hand.

Tensions flared after Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul sent a communiqué to Turkish embassies to establish closer relations with a variety of groups, including the Islamist National View organization -- a group accused of seeking to replace secular political institutions with Islamic law. The German government has expressed concern over the National View's activities within its borders, and a handful of German politicians used Gul's call for closer ties to the organization as an opportunity to question Turkey's entrance in the European Union.

With the controversy over the National View still hanging in the air, AK Party member and Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc said that his wife, known to follow the Muslim tradition of wearing a headscarf, would host the traditional April 23 reception at Parliament. According to the Turkish dress code, women are not permitted to wear headscarves in state offices or universities. President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Turkey's top generals, including Chief of General Staff Gen. Hilmi Ozkok -- all avowed secularists -- boycotted the reception. The following day, Turkey's ISE-100 index fell 2.5 percent in response to the apparent hostility between Erdogan's party and secularist factions.

The April 30 meeting between secularist allies, the MGK and Sezer may be the beginning of a plan to curtail the AK party's Islamist agenda, and failing that, push the party out of office. The Turkish government has been avowedly secular since 1923, when Kemal Ataturk took over the remains of the Ottoman Empire and established a modern Turkish state with the military at its core. Since then, the military has taken over the government three times -- and ousted a fourth administration -- to maintain internal stability, keep itself in power and keep Muslim activists out of politics.

The first military intervention occurred in 1960, when a series of large-scale student demonstrations led to bloody riots, prompting President Celal Bayar to impose martial law in Istanbul and Ankara on May 1. After harsh measures to return stability only caused further dissatisfaction with the government, Gen. Cemal Gürsel led a coup and dismantled the government.

Following three years of violence and economic troubles, Turkish military commanders imposed their will again in 1971. Violent demonstrations by leftist groups against the government's economic program began in June 1970 and again led to martial law in Istanbul. And in early 1971, a series of murders and bombing of government buildings led to fears of insurrection. Military commanders presented Prime Minister Suleiman Demirel with an ultimatum to restore order; when he failed to deliver, the military forced the government to resign.

Citing domestic political anarchy, Chief of Staff Gen. Kenan Evren overthrew Demirel's newly elected government in 1980. The coup was intended to end an era of widespread violence and economic stagnation that had prevailed in the late 1970s, and to prevent Necmettin Erbakan's National Salvation Party -- an Islamist political party -- from gaining power.

The last time the Turkish military intervened dramatically in Turkish politics was when it hounded Prime Minister Erbakan's Islamist-led coalition government out of power in 1997: Following an MGK meeting, the military launched a secularist campaign that forced the prime minister to step down and outlawed his Welfare Party. Many members of Erbakan's government joined Erdogan's party and have found jobs in his new government.

Now, a new crisis between the government and the military is gaining momentum. The present conflict between Erdogan's government and the military may stem partly from the fallout from the war in Iraq. Fearing a security threat from Kurds in northern Iraq and economic blowback from the conflict, Turkish political and military leaders had strong reservations about the war, but now with military action in the past, the country's armed forces may blame Ankara for handling the crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations poorly.

While both secularists and Islamists in Turkey opposed the war, Ankara's management of the crisis caused Turkey to lose the confidence of a major ally -- as well as a big chunk of money. The United States offered a massive aid package of $6 billion in grants, convertible toward up to $24 billion in low-interest, long-term loans, to help ease Turkey's economic burden from the war. The aid would have helped Ankara to refinance a large portion of its $145 billion state debt.

Either through clumsy political maneuvering or by clever deceit, Turkey's Parliament failed by a razor-thin margin to pass a bill that would have allowed U.S. forces to be based in Turkey for action against Iraq. The decision significantly altered U.S. strategy, generated resentment among some American politicians and prompted Washington to rescind its offer.

During U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Ankara in early April, a smaller, $1.75 billion aid package was offered to Turkey in exchange for over-flight rights and logistical support during the reconstruction phase. However, over the next year, Turkey will need to continue to refinance its debt to avoid default on its domestic debt, most of which is short-term and high interest, and concerns over the U.S. relationship will exacerbate the situation.

At this point Sezer, Ozkok and the secular powers they represent may not be willing to oust Erdogan and the AK. Stratfor sources in the Turkish government reveal that the AK indeed fears expulsion; however, the military is divided and some of its members still maintain confidence in the government and don't want to see it fall. By raising the stakes with its recent rhetoric, the MGK might only be trying to curb the government's behavior while it waits to see if further, more radical action needs to be taken later.