Military keep watchful eye on secular Turkey

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Thu May 1 12:19:30 MDT 2003

Military keep watchful eye on secular Turkey

  TURKEY: The army doesn't much care for the country's new government,
Nicholas Birch reports from Istanbul

Trying to understand the idiosyncracies of Turkish politics? Start by
looking at the images, on Turkish television yesterday and today, of the
monthly National Security Council meeting.

On the left, some smiling, some slouched in their chairs, the country's
senior cabinet ministers. On the right, straight-backed and stern, generals.

With the largest parliamentary majority in almost 20 years, the six-month
old Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should by all accounts
have the power to push through its stated programme of preparing Turkey for
European integration, stabilising the economy and cleaning up the country's
corruption-ridden political system.

Instead, yesterday it was once again given a dressing-down by the top brass,
fierce guardians of Turkey's secular heritage who are suspicious of the
party's roots in political Islam and worried that democratisation could
loosen their hold on power.

As well as criticising AKP plans to improve links with Islamist groups
popular among Europe's massive Turkish diaspora, the generals also targeted
the government's continuing replacement of senior bureaucrats with their own

"You may not like it, but all governments do it," says a political
scientist, Mr Soli Ozel. "What worries the army now is that the bureaucracy
is traditionally an ally. It doesn't want that alliance weakened."

Tensions between the two have been high since April 23rd, when the
opposition party and generals boycotted a reception hosted by the
parliamentary speaker, Mr Bulent Arinc, to celebrate the foundation of

Why? They saw the planned presence of his head-scarfed wife as a political
challenge to the secular basis of the Republic.

In an effort to defuse tensions, Mr Arinc's wife eventually decided not to
attend. But the boycott stood.

Like many prominent Turkish liberals, Mr Cengiz Candar, a political
commentator, supported AKP's bid for power last November, seeing them as a
better bet than the traditional parties that had pitched Turkey from crisis
to crisis throughout the 1990s. He's having second thoughts now,
disappointed by their unwillingness to stand by their programme.

"This headscarf affair isn't the first time they've backed down," he says.
"Their failure to push through laws liberalising the education system and
their choice under pressure to dump a constructive approach to Cyprus just
show their total impotence."

Other commentators point out that AKP's political power is not as great as
its two-thirds parliamentary majority suggests. "In real terms, AKP came to
power with only a quarter of Turks supporting it," explains a political
scientist, Mr Dogu Ergil. "Added to which, most Turks still see the army as
the only trustworthy barrier against political mismanagement."

Like other analysts, Mr Ozel thinks it unlikely that the army will step in
again. But that is not to say that tensions between government and military
will subside. With the European Union preparing to look into Turkey's
membership application next year, by far the most controversial issue is the
need to cut back on the military's excessive influence on politics.

© The Irish Times

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