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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 November 2006, 12:31 GMT
Turkish army keeps eye on politicians
Mark Mardell
By Mark Mardell
BBC Europe editor, Istanbul, Turkey

The tanks are rumbling through the streets of Istanbul and the crowds are cheering.

Not images from one of the four military coups of the last 50 years, but celebrations for the birthday of the Turkish republic.

Row upon row of sometimes rather baby-faced young men in smart blue uniforms march past, carrying trumpets and drums adorned with the Turkish flag.

Tanks in National Day parade
Turkey's army is the second biggest in Nato
Their white helmets and matching spats gleam. Behind them comes a troop of rather harder looking men shouldering assault rifles.

Then the serious stuff. Angular amphibious landing vehicles trundle by. Helicopter gunships whirr out of the sky.

The powerful chug of lines of tanks is drowned out by the scream of fighter bombers overhead.

Above stirring martial music the announcer yells out: "The sun is yours, the earth is yours, the sky is yours, let victory be your most sacred desire!"

'Political force'

It is a reminder that this is one of the largest armies in the world, more than a million people under its command, in Nato second only in size to the world's only superpower.

The army had a semi-colonial mission to the rest of society - and they've never ceased enthusiastically believing that they are the real civilising elite in Turkey
Prof Halil Berktay
Turkish historian

But it is also a reminder that Turkey's army is not only a potential force on the battlefield - it is a real force in day-to-day politics.

Few adult Turks can see this sight without recalling that the last coup was just nine years ago and was preceded by the coups of 1980, 1971 and 1960.

Senior diplomats say that Turkey has moved beyond coups and the army would only intervene like that if there was a total economic and political meltdown.

But no-one thinks the army is about to give up its political role either.

If the army thinks the politicians are giving in to the rise of political Islam, Kurdish separatists or are betraying northern Cyprus, then the politicians will know about it.

EU concerns

It is true that Turkey's armed forces have swallowed hard in recent years and accepted a reduction in their power - mainly to please the European Union, which on the whole they think is a good, if extremely irritating and naive, thing.

Portrait of modern Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk in Istanbul
The legacy of Ataturk dominates the military establishment

Since 2001, Turkey's national security council has had more elected civilians on its board and the cabinet merely has to "evaluate" that body's decisions, rather than "take them into consideration".

It meets less frequently and the civilian government can now audit military accounts.

This summer laws were revised so that military courts can no longer try civilians.

But these look like mere technical details compared to the EU list of complaints.

In the report being published on 8 November 2006, the European Commission notes that the armed forces exercise "significant political influence", the military has in law "a wide margin of manoeuvre" within "a broad definition of national security".

It concludes that the military should stick to speaking about defence matters and even these statements should only be made under the authority of the government.

General's warning

This is very far from what actually happens.

If this building [the state] falls down everything... including democracy, freedom of speech, human rights... gets crushed underneath. So the roof has to be strong - the army keeps an eye on it
Edib Baser
Retired Turkish general

When the EU condemns the Turkish top brass for making "public statements to influence areas beyond their responsibilities" it could well cite last month's speech by the chief of staff, Gen Yasar Buyukanit.

He said the Turkish republic and its values were "under heavy attack" from "people in the highest positions of government" because they wanted to redefine secularism.

Make no mistake, he does mean the present government. It was elected by a massive majority and is the first party for years that has been able to rule without needing to form a coalition.

It is up for election again next year and expected to win again. It could take the presidency as well.

It was elected promising to bring the headscarf ban to an end, something the majority of the population want.

But it has not been able to do it. From the women affected to fundamentalist agitators, no-one I talk to seems the tiniest bit surprised or even disappointed. They know the army has drawn a red line.

'Army is constitution'

Nearly two weeks after the National Day parade, I am watching a debate in the studios of Crescent TV, an Islamic channel on what is probably the hottest, longest-running topic in Turkey today - the relationship between religion and the state.

Crowd on Turkish Republic Day
Republic Day brings an outpouring of patriotic fervour
Four earnest men around a desk listen as a taped report sets the terms of the debate.

The reporter begins: "It's 83 years since the birth of the Turkish republic and yet we are still governed by a constitution written by soldiers..."

But this perhaps misses the point. In Turkey, the army thinks it is the constitution.

At least, it takes upon it the function of the constitution in many countries, seeing itself as the highest arbiter of the state, making sure that mere democratically elected governments do not stray from the straight and narrow.

Its sacred driving principle is that the sacred should never become a driving principle of the state.

It sees itself as a bulwark against political Islam and what it would regard as surrender to terrorism.

'Post-modern coup'

A retired four-star general, Edib Baser, who now runs the Institute for the Study of Ataturk's Principles and the History of the Republic, sees the state as a building.

"If this building falls down everything... including democracy, freedom of speech, human rights... gets crushed underneath. So the roof has to be strong. The army keeps an eye on it."

It is instructive to look at the1997 coup, which has been called the first "post-modern coup". That is a trendy way of saying the army made clear its displeasure, and events followed without the need for much brute force.

Neither the generals nor their puppets took over but the government resigned and there was a clampdown on political Islam.

Power without responsibility, perhaps, but it is probably more accurate to say the Turkish army feels it has a responsibility but does not actually seek direct power.

All armies, perhaps, have a reverential sense of their own history, but this is especially true in Turkey.

'Hampstead Liberals'

They were the driving force behind the revolution that modernised and westernised the country.

In the young Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, an army officer all his life until he became a revolutionary leader, used the army to build the schools and canals and mosques for grateful villagers.

But his conscript army also educated its soldiers, making sure they could read and write before they left its service.

A consequence of this is a rather strange anomaly.

In Turkey, there are liberals in a modern Western sense. But many of those who you would expect to be "Hampstead Liberals" in Britain are here among the strongest supporters of the army.

The controversial artist Bedri Baykam tells me: "This government unfortunately is trying to change every law little by little. It's as though we were trying to enter the Iranian Union, not the EU.

"Turkey is the only Muslim country that has democracy, freedom of speech and an international lifestyle and that is not a coincidence. It's because of Ataturk's ideas and the Turkish army's care and attention."

He has just been on a march in favour of secularism and against the possibility of the headscarf ban being lifted, and adds: "We do not want any military coup d'etat, because that would take us 20 or 30 years backwards. But we also don't want an Islamic coup, because that would take us 1,000 back. Between 30 and 1,000, I would prefer 30."

'Perpetual fear'

Some think that as Turkey changes and becomes more secure as a secular democracy, then the army will become more relaxed about Islamic symbols in the public sphere and slowly relinquish its role.

The army itself sometimes says that is its aim and desire. But it will not be easy.

Professor Halil Berktay, a historian and expert on the way Turkey sees its own history, tells me: "The army had a semi-colonial mission to the rest of society. And they've never ceased enthusiastically believing that they are the real civilising elite in Turkey."

"They say, 'We are the ones keeping Pandora's box closed and preventing the demons of backwardness, superstition, religious fundamentalism, Kurdish separatism and Armenian nationalism from emerging.' It's this sense of a civilising and protecting mission that drives them."

He adds: "The larger problem is the way the rest of Turkish society has internalised this and lives in perpetual fear of what the military might do."

The real test may come next year, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may decide to run for president.

If he does and wins, the thought of a man whose wife wears a headscarf living in the presidential palace, a man who was once imprisoned for words thought to represent militant Islam, occupying the role that Ataturk first held, may be too much for some officers to bear.

Then again, if these things come to pass and the sky does not fall in, they may start to relax a little and keep the moaning for the army mess table.


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