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THE WORLD

Turkish army takes its place in race

Reforms have reduced the military's authority in state affairs, but as general elections near, its presence is palpable.

May 08, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISTANBUL, TURKEY — The warnings were veiled but unmistakable. With rhetoric that grew more intense each day, Turkey's senior generals accused the government of pursuing a fundamentalist Muslim agenda. Tanks rolled through the streets in a show of force. Markets tumbled. Political rallies took a violent turn.

That was 10 years ago, when the first elected government in Turkey to embrace Islamist principles was driven from power by the army. That event still colors the world's image of this vibrant but struggling secular democracy, whose political model is unique in the Muslim world.

With the 1997 military intervention still fresh in memories here, many in Turkey are asking whether the military has once again stage-managed something akin to a coup.

There is little question that the army was a driving force behind last week's dramatic decision by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling party has its roots in political Islam, to set his government on a course for early dissolution, moving up the general elections to select a new parliament by nearly four months.

On Sunday, the party's presidential candidate, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, abandoned his bid until after those elections have taken place in July. The president is elected by parliament in Turkey.

But there are key differences between the tumultuous events of a decade ago and the present political drama. Reforms put in place over the last several years as Turkey has campaigned to join the European Union have diminished the army's authority in affairs of state, though by no means ended it.

"We are in a kind of no man's land, where the military is not as powerful as it was in mounting open coups, but has not yet been transformed into a position where it accepts political decisions that grow out of the democratic system," said Bulent Aliriza, a former diplomat who directs the Turkey Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

'Defenders of secularism'

Erdogan's decision to call early elections came after massive anti-government demonstrations and a court decision that blocked the election of his party's candidate for president. Many analysts believe, however, that the opposition parties and their followers were emboldened, even guided, by statements from the military's powerful general staff suggesting that the army would step in if an Islamist became president.

"It must be remembered that the Turkish armed forces are ... the absolute defenders of secularism," the army chieftains said in a sharply worded statement issued late April 27, hours after the first of what were to have been four rounds of voting for president. "When necessary, they will display their attitudes and actions very clearly -- no one should doubt that."

When that statement was posted on the main military website, some commentators dubbed it an "Internet coup."

Erdogan's government angrily protested it as an effort to pressure the constitutional court to halt the presidential election. At anti-government protests, however, demonstrators praised the military's warnings as a needed defense of the secular way of life.

"The army will be the ones to make sure we don't have to wear Islamic head scarves," said protester Aysegul Kansak, who marched with nearly three-quarters of a million people in Istanbul on April 29.

Ultimately, though, military pressure could backfire. Though bowing for the moment to the wishes of the army and judicial establishment, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party could well emerge even stronger, many analysts say. Polls suggest that the party could once again capture a parliamentary majority in the July 22 vote.

The party, also known by its Turkish initials AKP, will spend the coming weeks trying to push through constitutional changes that could strengthen its hand, including lowering the minimum age of candidates from 30 to 25 to reflect the party's burgeoning support among the young.

The ruling party is also expected to reap benefits at the ballot box from an economic boom over the last five years, which has enriched and empowered a large swath of religiously conservative voters. The AKP's constituency, once largely rural and poor, is now increasingly urban and middle-class.

Army's central role

One of the striking aspects of the current political turmoil is the disconnect between how military muscle-flexing is regarded by the outside world and by a domestic Turkish audience.

Most Western governments view military coups, or threats of one, as the hallmark of a country whose democratic institutions are shaky at best. But here in Turkey, the notion of the army stepping in to oust a government, as it has done four times in the last 50 years, is broadly viewed as an integral part of the democratic system of checks and balances rather than a contradiction to it.

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