Turkey Between Two September 12ths


When General Kenan Evren took to the airwaves on September 12, 1980 to announce that the military had suspended civilian government in Turkey, his country was a very different place than today. The nation was facing triple digit inflation and the countryside had been ravaged by nearly a decade of low-level civil war. Leftist and right-wing paramilitary groups were carrying out tit-for-tat assassinations at the rate of three a day, the parliament had been unable to elect a president for almost six months, and hard-right parties had colonized much of the state security apparatus.

In the months that followed, militants on both sides were rounded up, executions were carried out, old-guard politicians were temporarily banned, and management of the economy was placed in the hands of military-backed economists. Within three years, the army had written up a constitution and returned the country to civilian control via a series of highly controlled elections. The 1982 constitution remains in place—it is designed to avoid the factional chaos of the 1970s and place the armed forces in a position of tutelage—i.e. final-say—over government affairs.

This September 12th, on the thirtieth anniversary of the coup, Turks may have many concerns—global financial trouble, religious tensions, and low-level civil war in the Kurdish south—but a main concern for many will be how to schedule their weekends. The Ramazan holiday ends on the 8th, the three day Sugar Holiday ends on Saturday the 11th, and polling booths open the following Sunday morning. Turks wanting to have their vote counted must race back from their hometowns or Aegean beach resorts. Travel agencies are already offering holiday packages that guarantee a return home by the night of the 11th .

On Sunday they will be choosing whether to approve or reject a packet of constitutional reforms. These will change the means by which certain government institutions select their officers, the power of the armed forces to police itself, and a number of other small-bore changes. But, more generally, the referendum serves as a Rorschach test, bringing into stark relief how political parties (and the people they represent) view the current direction of the nation and the assumptions which underlay the 1980 coup.



1. Why a Referendum ?

2. The State of the Main Opposition

3.  . . .And the Small Opposition Parties

4. The Politics of the Referendum

5. Conclusion


Turkey is a majority Muslim country where outwardly devout behavior is neither required, nor particularly encouraged by the government. To call this a rarity is more than understatement. The balance has long been maintained by the sharp divide between urban and rural, coastal and interior—but this is changing rapidly. Among their other effects, the industrial policies of the 1980s created both rich cities in the interior and more jobs on the coasts. Suddenly wealth and political power was no longer a coastal, secular bailiwick and neither were cities like Istanbul dominated by the old elites.

The current Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayip Erdoğan, is a perfect exemplar of this shift in power. Born in one of Istanbul’s poorer neighborhoods, working in his youth as a street food vendor, and supporting his academics through sporting prowess, his biography stands at odds with those of past Turkish leaders. In the 1970s he was involved in Islamic-based political groups, in the 1980 coup he found himself suspended from politics, but gradually rose up through urban politics. By the mid-90s, he’d become mayor of Istanbul and begun pushing through an ambitious development program. In 1997 he was jailed as part of a government crack down on rising Islamism. By 2002 his party had won power at the ballot box and since 2003 he has held the most powerful office in the country. His second-in-command, current Turkish President Abdullah Gül, also came up through Islamic political parties and hails from Kayseri, one of the newly potent industrial cities of the interior.

From their biographies, it should not be surprising were the current Turkish leadership hostile towards the armed forces. The past eight years have borne witness to repeated disputes between the civilian government and the military. The army has, on several occasions, implied that it exercised final vetoes over policy and that, were certain lines crossed, it would have to step in and assert itself.

In a country as nationalistic as Turkey, where the military is revered, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are limited in their ability to challenge the generals. Over the past several years, however, a number of developments have assisted them. A military plot codenamed “Sledgehammer,” intended to destabilize the nation and create an environment ripe for the army to step in, was revealed to the press. At the same time, a second investigation into an alleged conspiratorial network called Ergenokon, whose alleged ambition is to seize control of the government, has fingered a number of military figures and weakened the military’s image. True or not, these alleged plots have made the army look by turns devious and foolish.

Also arguably contributing to the decline in prestige has been the winding down of the civil war in the Kurdish south. For nearly a decade, the south of Turkey was a battleground with the military bulldozing towns and engaged in frequent firefights with Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) militias. The poverty of the region coupled with successive governments’ unwillingness to acknowledge the very real cultural differences between Kurds and Turks had created bitterness. By removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq’s Kurdish north, the US created a safe haven for insurgents seeking to destabilize southern Turkey. Only with the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, did things begin to calm down. This left the army with less of a commanding role to play.

Seeking to reach a settlement on the Kurdish issue from a position of strength—and to co-opt the sizeable Kurdish vote—Erdoğan’s government has been seeking to pass legislation that will sooth the Kurds: Language restrictions have been eased in school and on television; city names which had been Turkified have reverted to Kurdish; municipalities are now allowed to communicate in Kurdish; and penalties for juveniles throwing rocks at soldiers have been reduced.

But legitimizing the Kurds in these ways is deeply unpopular with large segments of the Turkish public. It’s an article of faith that Turkey is one, united nation and that the term “Turk” is not an ethnic marker, but a mark of citizenship. Turkey is, after all, the remnants of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire; it has already lost its Arab, Greek, Balkan, and Jewish populations, to acknowledge the remaining territory is equally fissiparous would open the door for further disintegration. By pushing for a settlement to the Kurdish issue, the AKP has opened itself up to attack from the main opposition CHP and MHP parties—the latter of whom calls the government’s attempts to pursue peace with the Kurds traitorous.

The government is also exposed to criticism on other fronts. Although it presents itself as moderately Islamic and respectful of the state’s secular traditions, many doubt it. Secular-minded Turks watch with fear as more and more positions in the government and academia are filled with AKP loyalists. Past attempts to ban liquor and on-going attempts to allow headscarves in universities are seen as evidence of the ruling parties larger intent.

Yet, while the AKP is expanding its control of state institutions, there are many still insulated from its reach and these make their presence strongly felt. Of course there is the military, but there is also the Constitutional Court (YARSAV) and the High Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). These have repeatedly struck down legislation or brought suit against the government. These bodies have the power to rule political parties unconstitutional and are not afraid to use it. A suit alleging AKP’s intention to bring about Islamic revolution was heard and could have gone against the ruling party, leaving it with no recourse. At the height of the government’s Kurdish initiative push, the main Kurdish Party (DTP) was ruled illegal. Its leaders were barred from politics. Kurdish politicians reconstituted themselves quickly as the BDP, but the message had been sent.

The reason these institutions are so protected from AKP control is that they are self-selecting; they are able to nominate most of their own members. The effect is that large pockets of the government operate with no real check or balance. The undemocratic nature of many Turkish institutions has been observed repeatedly during EU membership negotiations and now the AKP is using these critiques as a practical argument for its proposed changes. By presenting a “Yes” vote as a vote for a more modern, westernized Turkey, AKP is seeking win over the oppositions Europhile elements.



The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), likes to imagine itself as the keeper of Ataturk’s flame. The founder of modern Turkey and the officers who surrounded him, came of political age in the early 20th century and developed a great deal of their modernizing outlook from the secular French example. They sought to create a society in which people were loyal to the nation above all else. They downplayed ethnicity and religion in their state-building efforts. Unfortunately, they failed to forge a democratic state that could fully reflect their ambitions. During Ataturk’s life and up until the 1950s, the country was under single party rule. The army, stacked with Ataturk’s loyalists, was not an independent force. Attempts to create a loyal opposition failed and it was only widespread disillusionment caused by the government’s WWII economic policies that provided the spark necessary for political change.

Change, when it arrived, did not come from radicals, but from people who had initially bought into Ataturk’s vision of the state—the first non-CHP president, Celal Bayar, had only separated from the party a few years earlier. The main political figure of the next decade, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, came from the land owning elite. Hardly a man of the people, he was not above using populism to gain votes and his attempts to accumulate more and more power ultimately earned him the wrath of the army and a long fall with a short rope around his neck.

The 1960 coup that saw Menderes’ forcible exit and the army’s entry into politics, did not stabilize Turkey, it merely brought new factors into play. Weak governments, Cold War politics, and war in Cypress made the army more respected and influential.

Throughout this period, the questions at the forefront of Turkish politics were economic, not religious. The Middle East of the 1950s through 70s was the Middle East of Nassar and the Baath Party, Socialist and Nationalist movements. Religion did not begin to make itself felt until the 70s. It was the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan-Russian War that accelerated the appeal of a particularly Islamic style of politics.

The CHP speaks of the nation and of a vague sort of socialism, but AKP has beaten it to the punch in terms of policy. True to its name, the government has been keen to direct money to the poor and to the countryside. The party has overseen massive infrastructure projects in areas previously ignored by the traditional Turkish governing class. It has managed the economy highly effectively. It has put its money where the CHP merely puts its mouth.

Worse still, for years the CHP remained under the leadership of Denis Baykal. A less than inspiring politician by liberal standards, he opposed the government’s attempts to resolve the Kurdish situation and occasionally implied his support for an increased military role in politics. In short, even if AKP seemed bad, the alternative was extremely dispiriting.

But Baykal is gone now. Several months ago, a hidden camera revealed him in the aftermath of a hotel room liaison with another member of his party. The scandal forced his resignation. (In true, Turkish-conspiratorial style, the question of who was behind the video is vague. Was it the AKP seeking to embarrass him? Factions in his own party seeking to de-throne him? The military seeking to oust him in favor of a more electable leader? Or some outside players?) His replacement, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, seems highly competent though no more inspiring that his predecessor—in speeches he likes to speak of worker’s rights and harp on corruption in the AKP.

Kiliçdaroğlu and the CHP have come out against the referendum—with the hedge that they support constitutional change, just not under this government. Their criticism has been two-fold. First, amendments will allow AK or AK-leaning institutions to appoint 10 of the 17 court positions giving the government too much control over the courts. Second, placing government lawyers and judges fully under the control of the Justice minister, preventing them from launching independent probes, will shield the AKP’s leaders from embarrassing investigations.

The CHP has worked against AKP legislation at every opportunity. It’s appealed numerous times to the Constitutional Court. In 2008 it succeeded in overturning a bill allowing the wearing of headscarves in state universities—something banned since the military cracked down on Islamists in 1997. In the case of these current reforms, the CHP first complained that AKP had made procedural errors in its introduction of the legislation. When these were rectified and the reforms passed through parliament, the CHP sought to delay the date of the referendum vote. Now, the date set, its leadership is traveling the country, full-throatedly decrying the changes.

There’s a great deal to be said for balance of powers in government. Even if the AKP leadership is honest about its moderate intentions in regards to the secular state, much of its strength is based on appealing to those who don’t care for such niceties. In the face of this, the only institutionalized political forces defending people’s freedoms from an incipient morality-police-state are the secular bureaucracy and military. This argument loses a great deal of its force, though, when one considers the track record of secular governments in Turkey—on the laundry list of offenses are ridiculous limitations on freedom of speech, corruption, widespread human rights abuses, and the systematic repression of minority cultures.

Such a poor track record makes the opposition seem less than noble in its complaints—its opposition to constitutional reforms far more predicated on its own desire to maintain power than its ambition to use that power in any beneficial way.

Regardless, the referendum has forced the CHP to back the idea of constitutional reform (even if not these particular ones). In an attempt to outflank Erdoğan on the left, Kiliçdaroğlu has even called for an amendment to the constitutional clause calling on the military to “watch and protect” over the state.

Further right on the spectrum, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) argues that the constitutional changes are nothing more than a further attempt by the AKP to seize power. More conspiratorially-minded than the CHP, the MHP sees a creeping Islamicization of the society spearheaded politically by the AKP and culturally by Fetullah Gülen, the religious leader (exiled since 1997) whose influence allegedly extends to bookstores, media outlets, and a vast lay society whose members are gradually infiltrating the armed forces.



Although the MHP leadership is vociferously opposed to the referendum, its rank and file may be less so. In the aftermath of the 1980, many MHP members were tried and imprisoned for their participation in right-wing militias. The reforms stripping immunity from their persecutors may appeal to a desire for revenge.

Similarly, while opponents focus on the enhanced powers the changes will give to the government, supporters see judiciary reforms as necessary to remove the military’s influence. To them the constitutional changes are not so much about current political problems, but rather a correction to three decades worth of injustice; they are necessary steps towards “[delivering] the militarists a lesson.” Among the referendum’s changes is a repeal of the immunity given coup plotters by the 1982 constitution and an expansion of civil authority into legal areas previously controlled by military courts. (Although the end of legal immunity sets an important precedent it’s unlikely to have any real effect as the statute of limitations on any relevant crimes has passed.)

There are a number of other changes that seek to alter the balance struck in the 1982 constitution—civil servants, for example, will be given greater collective bargaining rights and women’s rights will be bolstered. Viewed from this angle, the referendum really is correcting the excesses of 1980.

But this is precisely the problem which the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has with the referendum. In their view, the referendum’s effect will be to put a Band-Aid over a bullet wound without removing the bullet. Fundamental flaws are at the heart of the constitution and no amount of marginal changes will solve the problem. To participate in the vote will be to validate a faulty system, therefore the BDP is calling for a boycott of the referendum in order to drive home the level of Kurdish alienation from the state. As nearly 20% of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, the effect of a potential boycott is serious.

Despite the AKP attempts at friendly gestures, the BDP has not been a reliable partner in forging political compromises. When Erdoğan began to speak of a Kurdish opening in 2009 and began holding meetings with business leaders and Kurdish representatives, the reactions from the opposition were fierce. Among the more modest charges was that Erdoğan was undermining the Turkish state simply to gain votes in the Kurdish south. Kurdish leaders likely feared the same thing. Too much accommodation with the government would have weakened their raison d’etre. Just as the PKK militias have upped their attacks in recent months to remind the government that they cannot be ignored, so has the BDP sought to assure its seat at the negotiating table as the sole spokesperson for Kurds. To this end the parliamentary BDP has withheld its support from several key AKP initiatives—including these current reforms—on the grounds that the AKP is not paying sufficient attention to its suggestions.

Calling a boycott, though, turns the referendum into a test of the BDP’s strength. Already numerous Kurdish business leaders have broken with the party and come out in support of the referendum. If the BDP cannot lead Kurdish opinion, it will emerge from the election significantly weakened.



With the BDP sitting out the referendum and CHP and MHP marching in lock-step opposition, the referendum becomes a true test of the ruling party’s strength. Since even the CHP admits there should be changes made to the 1982 constitution, it’s fair to say that a clear majority of the Turkish people seeks changes to the status quo. A no vote would less imply an opposition to change than it would an unwillingness to entrust the AKP with greater power. Logically it would follow that the AKP should soften its image and seek to dispel lingering public misgivings. It would behoove the leadership to tamp down its tendency toward vitriolic rhetoric. And yet . . .

“Those who remain neutral will be neutralized,” declared Erdoğan in a recent speech. The threat was directed at TÜSIAD, the powerful business organization. The AKP has long had a thorny relationship with the group. On the one hand, it sought its support for the Kurdish initiative, on the other hand, the organization came out strongly against Erdoğan’s candidacy for the presidency in 2007.

Although the organization has previously supported constitutional changes and called for integration into the European Union, the referendum (whose changes have been endorsed by the EU) has met with protestations of neutrality. An alphabet-soup of business organizations have declared their support (including MÜSIAD—jokingly, but not literally, short for “Muslim TÜSIAD”) and Erdoğan views TÜSIAD’s silence as tacit criticism of the government.

It should be lost on no one that TÜSIAD is chaired by Arzuhan Doğan, the daughter of media baron (and AKP critic) Aydın Doğan. Conservative Turks view the elder Doğan as a smut peddler—his papers do tend to be full of cheese-cake shots and tabloid journalism mixed with criticisms of the AKP and updates on the comings, goings, and award recievings of Doğan himself. The contrast between the tone of his English language paper Turkish Daily News and the AKP-supporting Today’s Zaman (allegedly owned by religious leader Fetullah Gülen) is a bracing example of partisanship infecting journalism.

Erdoğan has never taken criticism well and has repeatedly lashed out at Doğan’s papers for, in his view, seeking to undermine the government by alleging non-existent malfeasance. Last year, he got his revenge: The government began investigating Doğan and found his companies guilty of tax evasion. Doğan was slapped with the highest fine in Turkish legal history—$3.8 billion. Doğan has won most of his subsequent court battles, but the pressure from the government seems to have worked. At the beginning of the year Doğan stepped down from his position, as did the editor of Hurriyet, his largest newspaper. The whole affair has left the impression that AKP does not tolerate criticism and will use its institutional power to persecute its opponents. Coupled with periodic outbursts—like this recent one at TÜSIAD—it’s no wonder many do not trust the AKP with expanded powers.



What then will the September 12th results mean? “Yes,” will certainly be a victory for the ruling party. “No” will, equally certainly, be a defeat. But as to what the results say about Turk’s desire for liberalization, its difficult to say. Turkey is not a liberal society and, government traditions aside, it’s not a very secular one either. Respect for the military remains strong in most quarters—as does a situational attitude towards human rights. Politically, the country is split between a ruling party that seeks to reduce the undemocratic powers of the state in order to bring about socially conservative policies and a pair of parties who seek to maintain the undisputed power of the state over the individual to insure freedoms they approve of. There may be a widely shared sense that alterations to the constitution are necessary, but the current political divisions tend to work against it.

The political divides in Turkey are unique to it, but the problems that filter through those divisions are the same as any country faces: The rights of the individual, the power of the state, the struggles between rich and poor, the comfort and suffocation of the traditional, the appeal and repulsion of modernity. September 12th’s referendum won’t answer any grand questions, but looking over its intricacies gives us a fine snap-shot of Turkey at this moment in its political and cultural history.