Talking Turkey

The issues of military reform and emigration loom large in the EU’s negotiations with Turkey.

Yesterday at the Nixon Center, former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle compared the Turkish electoral system to the sausage maker in his kitchen: The results of both mechanisms are anything but consistent. In Turkey, the strange mixture of flawed election laws and military involvement in politics ensures unpredictable political outcomes; the unstable political situation there has raised questions about the Turkish military's central place in politics. The military's political prominence and the specter of large-scale Turkish emigration present significant challenges to the European Union, which opened membership negotiations with Turkey in 2004.

While Perle, currently a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that the EU should not impose military reforms on Turkey, former Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz implied that such reforms would not be harmful to Turkey's democratic health.

Turkey's current political crisis is a symptom of a more serious malady: a "deformity" enshrined in the current constitution. The constitution requires a party to garner at least 10 percent of the popular vote in order to achieve parliamentary representation-an unusually high threshold.

This system, designed to prevent political fragmentation, has produced skewed election results. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a conservative organization with religious roots, has a majority in the Turkish parliament although it received only 34 percent of the vote in the most recent election. The secular opposition is divided among several small parties, so it is underrepresented in the legislature, even though secularism enjoys popular support. The constitution, crafted by the staunchly secular army, has marginalized the secular portion of the electorate.

The military sees itself as the guardian of Turkish secular democracy, and will intervene in politics when it perceives that secularism is under siege. Such intervention runs the gamut from comments-meant to influence public opinion-to seizing power from governments thought to be "ineffective." Although the Turkish military has overthrown four governments since the Turkish republic's founding, it has always returned power to civilian officials. The military, therefore, does not impede the functioning of Turkey's democracy; rather, Perle said, it is an important check on the Turkish government's power. "The model of the military coup that we're familiar with doesn't apply in the Turkish case", the scholar explained.

Consequently, Perle said that the EU must take care to preserve the Turkish military's place in politics during the membership negotiations process. While some of the EU-mandated reforms will undoubtedly improve Turkish democracy if implemented, any European attempt to circumscribe the powers of the army would be misguided, Perle warned.

Unlike Perle, Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, argued that the Turkish army was not an untouchable institution; Turkish democracy can move forward-and toward EU membership-without further military intervention in politics. When the military seizes power, the rule of law suffers-no matter how benign the military's intentions. For instance, during the 1980 intervention, the army threw "huge numbers" of people in jail, Abramowitz said. Yet due to the dismal record of the toppled government, many Turks welcomed the military's actions at that time.

The Turkish public still holds the military in high regard, but the armed forces have definitely lost some of the respect accorded to them in the past, Abramowitz said. The armed forces may be losing some of its political clout too-the former ambassador believes that AKP has so far done an impressive job of facing down its military adversary.

Military leaders-and secular-minded Turkish citizens-oppose the AKP because they suspect that it has a hidden Islamist agenda. Since it controls the Turkish parliament, the AKP already exercises considerable control over the state's policy. The army fears that if an AKP-affiliated presidential candidate is voted into office by the parliament, the party will use its absolute control over the Turkish political apparatus to institute Islamic laws.

The army's publicly stated concerns about the AKP's presidential candidate mobilized popular support for secularism-even among those that had previously been politically apathetic. On his most recent trip to Turkey, Perle spoke with a carpet seller who had joined the anti-AKP protests. The carpet seller told Perle that before the crisis, "I never would have never dreamed that I would be in the streets."

Perle emphasized that while he believes that the army has a legitimate stake in Turkish politics, he does not think that the AKP poses a threat to Turkish secularity. The scholar interviewed Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's current prime minister, shortly before the AKP chief took office. Perle noted that Erdogan did not seem to have radical Islamic pretensions. Still, Perle felt that the army's criticism of the party benefited Turkey's democracy, containing some of the AKP's more radical elements.

Abramowitz agreed with Perle's evaluation of the AKP and offered insight into the party's ideological trajectory. The Turkish military, by applying public pressure to the party, has forced it "moderate its rhetoric", Abramowitz said. The AKP has ousted 160 of its Islamist officials, replacing them with leaders whose views are more "modern." The AKP, Abramowitz said, now insists that it is a conservative-not a religious-party. Although the party has been accused of harboring Islamist designs on Turkey, it has yet to enact policies capable of weakening the secular foundation of Turkey's government. Nonetheless, Abramowitz admitted that AKP officials have taken some "disturbing" Islamist actions at the local level.