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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Military and the Elections

From the Financial Times:

Military's strategy to neutralise opponents is big casualty of poll

By Vincent Boland

Published: July 24 2007 03:00 | Last updated: July 24 2007 03:00

When General Yashar Buyukanit, head of Turkey's armed forces, went to his polling station in a wealthy Ankara suburb on Sunday to vote in a general election, other voters gave him a round of applause.

Now his institution is emerging as one of the chief casualties of the election, which has potentially changed the relationship between the military and politics in Turkey decisively in favour of politicians.

Gen Buyukanit initiated a clash with the outgoing government of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party (AKP) in April. In a now infamous midnight ultimatum on its website, the general staff issued a not entirely persuasive statement complaining about the creeping Islamisation ofsociety.

Turkey's military has ousted four elected governments since 1960, but its political role was supposed to be diminishing because of changes to the constitution introduced by the AKP as part of reforms aimed at joining the European Union. The April 27 "e-coup" therefore caused uproar and the ensuing constitutional crisis led to last weekend's general election, in which the AKP has emerged as the clear winner, with an enhanced mandate and 340 seats in the 550-seat parliament.

It was hardly the result Gen Buyukanit can have wished for, in spite of the military's scrupulous silence since the April 27 démarche. There is agreement among political analysts that the intervention increased support for the AKP and may have drained it from the army, said to be Turkey's most trusted institution. It also upset, perhaps fatally, the system of checks and balances the military put in place in the 1982 constitution, and may have compromised its ability to shape Turkey's political direction.

"This election result is a slap in the face for the military because it shows that the Turkish people don't want them trying to design the political and social space. It's a determined 'no' to their interference in politics," says Ihsan Dagi, professor at the Middle East Technical University.

The scale of the AKP's win is not the only piece of bad election news for the general staff. The main opposition Republican People's party (CHP), the group traditionally closest to the military top brass, performed dismally. And 27 independent MPs, most of them representing troubled Kurdish south-eastern provinces, won seats, giving Kurds a voice in parliament for the first time since the early 1990s.

Between them, the AKP, which doubled its Kurdish vote in this election, and the independents have the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to enact constitutional change. While they almost certainly do not want to pursue such reform, the symbolic and practical importance of their domination is inescapable. They represent the two factions the constitution was designed to keep out of parliament - political Islam and Kurdish separatism.

The constitution is a legacy of the military coup of 1980. Turkey at the time was ravaged by political violence. The army stepped in to restore order, but it also decreed the depoliticisation of Turkish life, banning parties and politicians and locking up dissidents. It then used the constitution, written under the general staff's supervision, to engineer a two-bloc system with the CHP on the left, secular parties on the centre-right, and a 10 per cent threshold for party representation inparliament.

The system did not deliver political stability, and Turkey suffered a series of increasingly weak coalition governments. But it has taken the rise of the AKP, representatives of a resurgence of religious belief and social conservatism, to expose its limitations

"It's the end of the 1982 constitutional system," says Cengiz Aktar, an academic in Istanbul. "The checks and balances put in place by the military to avoid the twin threats to the republic - as the military would see them - of separatism and political Islam have failed. The religious guys are in power, and the so-called separatists bypassed the 10 per cent threshold [by standing as independents]. It's a total failure of the system."

That does not mean the military is out of the picture - it is too big and important an institution to be sidelined so easily.

But Prof Dagi says the snub delivered to it "might really be a turning point in the consolidation of Turkish politics".

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