Strong-Arm Democracy

It's official. After four military coups since 1960, the Turkish Army doesn't interfere with civilian politics anymore. Just look at Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's most popular politician, banned last month by Turkey's Supreme Court from running in this weekend's general election. To most, the case looked suspiciously like a rerun of the Army's last and quietest coup, in February 1998, when it removed a previous government for the same reason as it did Erdogan--for being overly Islamic in a rigidly secular country. But no, says Turkey's foreign minister, Sukru Gurel. This was no pre-emptive coup. It was an example of "Turkey's independent judiciary" at work.

If Gurel's outburst sounds indignant, it's because Turkey's nationalist establishment is circling the wagons in defense of Ankara's tightly rationed version of democracy. The "attack" comes from the European Union, which wants Turkey to conform to its own, more liberal, vision of governance before it considers admitting Turkey to the club. The EU, which Turkey yearns to join, has just weighed the country's progress toward the Copenhagen Criteria for new members--and found it wanting. Its report, issued earlier this month to howls of protest across the Turkish political spectrum, listed the usual criticisms--human-rights abuses, repression of minorities and limited freedom of speech. Erdogan, for instance, was banned from running because of a 1999 conviction for "Islamic sedition." His crime: reading a passage from a well-known poem that contained religious references at a rally. But it was a different demand that struck a particularly raw nerve. Brussels wants Ankara's military to stop meddling in civilian politics.

In the past, Eurocrats have glossed over this issue. But as Turkey moves closer toward membership, Brussels is voicing its concerns more unequivocally. "Turkey has to be a functional democracy and have a transparent political process," says a senior European Commission official. "That means no behind-the-scenes forces picking and choosing which politicians can run and which can't." Trouble is, by taking on the Army, the EU is attacking the holiest of sacred cows. In Turkey, the military is more than just a national defense force--it's the backbone of the state. The military is, according to virtually every opinion poll, the single most trusted and respected institution in the country. (Parliament, by contrast, ranks at the bottom.)

Gen. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the career officer who founded the modern Turkish republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, entrusted the military with continuing his reforming, pro-Western zeal, and it has followed that path ever since. Contemporary "Kemalism" enshrines secularism, unity, progress and democracy as the cornerstones of government and society. But as Emin Sirin, a parliamentary candidate for Erdogan's AK Party, points out, "The secularism and unity part usually override the democracy part." From elites to the man in the street, Turks see the Army as the guarantor of stability and modernity.

That's led to a strange paradox. On paper, the European Union and the Army should be on the same side. Both profess to want a progressive Turkey, integrated into Western civilization. Both distrust political Islam and want to crack down on Islamist extremists. But in practice, their visions of Turkey's future are set to clash. The EU may endorse many of the Army's policies, but it fundamentally opposes its role in enforcing them. If a head-on collision has been avoided, it's only because the EU has so far focused on more-easily solved differences--which Turkey has been ready to address. This summer the Turkish Parliament enacted a raft of reforms intended to pave its way into the Union. It banned the death penalty, eased restrictions on free speech and allowed broadcasting and teaching in Kurdish, the native language of 12 million Turkish citizens--all steps that were welcomed by Brussels, and for which the military took credit.

Just because the military has become more liberal, however, doesn't mean it's any less willing to exert its power. Take this summer's reforms. They were passed with the Army's blessing, not independently of it, notes journalist Cengiz Candar, senior columnist for the Sabah newspaper before he was removed in 1998 for criticizing the military. (He now writes for the small-circulation Yeni Safak.) What has changed is the military's style of exercising power. "The Army sees that 70 percent of the country wants to be integrated into Europe," Candar says, and so makes what he calls necessary "cosmetic" concessions. Thus in addition to giving ground on human-rights issues, it has also increased the number of civilians on the powerful National Security Council (NSC), which brings the country's top political and military officials together to discuss key domestic and international issues.

But that reform has done little to assuage Europe's fears that the secretive NSC still plays a disproportionately large role in governing the country. Officially, the NSC has only an advisory role in Turkish politics. "In practice," reads the recent EU report, "Its opinions carry more weight then mere recommendations." Tinkering with the institutional makeup or structure of the NSC isn't likely to change this fact. The habits of obedience--or at least deference--to the military are pervasive in Turkish society. "The rules are unwritten but exist in the mind of every Turk," says Candar. "When it comes to Iraq, Cyprus or the Kurdish question, the military has a say. It's automatic."

Even if there's been a change of style, the latest reform package hasn't actually gone that far in improving the quality of Turkey's democracy. According to the EU, 40 books were banned between January and May 2002, and more than 100 cases are pending against journalists charged with "insulting state institutions" or "supporting illegal organizations." Thousands of students and activists are still jailed for "crimes" that in Europe would be considered part of the political process--supporting Kurdish rights too zealously, for instance, or joining hunger strikers protesting prison conditions.

The banning of Erdogan, and legal proceedings launched last week against his AK Party, are probably the clearest signs of the establishment's continuing opposition to expressions of democracy with which it disagrees. Just how the mechanisms of influence between the military and the judiciary work is murky. But consider this: in April, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, who became chief of the general staff in August, denounced Erdogan for his alleged Islamic sympathies, despite the fact that Erdogan has forsworn extremism, seeks to join Europe and argues for the separation of religion and the state. Referring to the date on which the Army removed the mildly Islamist government of Erdogan's former mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, from power, Ozkok vowed to "continue the Feb. 28 process for a thousand years." Four months later, Erdogan was duly banned from running by Turkey's Supreme Court despite the fact that he led the polls by nearly 20 points and was an odds-on favorite to become prime minister. Officially, of course, the Army had no role in what was described as a purely judicial proceeding. But many are skeptical. "Turkey's judiciary consider themselves to be primarily servants of the state," says a senior European parliamentarian who favors Turkish accession. "I don't think anyone in Brussels seriously thinks the ban was anything other than political."

The problem for the EU is that the Army has good reason to preserve its role. If not for the Army, Turkey could be riven by ethnic and religious factionalism. Generations of civilian politicians have proved to be woefully corrupt and ineffectual. (In the Nov. 3 election, one quarter of the candidates standing for Parliament have criminal records or face criminal charges--and are assured immunity if elected.) And from the perspective of the anarchic 1970s, when communists and nationalists shot each other on the streets, the Army is indeed a powerful force for stability. For the military--which has always quickly handed power back to the civilians after every coup--the ultimate question is this: when can Turks trust their elected leaders enough to relinquish the safety net the Army provides? Gen. Cevik Bir, former deputy chief of the general staff, says that it's the politicians and the people who want the Army to take a role, not vice versa. "The Army is not interested in politics," says Bir. "But we have been tasked to protect the Turkish state as well as our land... Our aim is to help Turkey reach civilization, and the EU is a way to achieve that. But Europe doesn't want to see things from our perspective."

Perhaps time will break the deadlock. Greece, Spain and Portugal were admitted to the EU after the overthrow of military dictatorships. It's fair to ask whether Turkey should be held to a higher standard, especially given the comparatively benign role of the Turkish generals. Turkey's strong military also suits its other ally, the United States, just fine because Washington needs the Turks to back its campaign against Iraq. The United States has even appealed to the EU to speed Turkey's accession, calling it "a U.S. strategic interest"--though so far Brussels hasn't been swayed by Washington's special pleading.

It's not surprising that Brussels isn't rushing to integrate Turkey--it's already preparing to digest 10 new members, due to join by the end of 2004, plus several others likely to join a few years later. Turkey is at the bottom of the list. Unlike even Bulgaria and Romania, it hasn't even been granted a start date for accession talks.

The Turks want that, badly, if only as an acknowledgment of the reforms they've already passed. But it's pretty clear that Europe won't give Ankara a firm date for talks at its Copenhagen summit in December. Brussels says it hasn't seen enough improvement in Turkey to justify such a commitment--but some Turks charge that the real reason is that the EU is wary of admitting a large Muslim nation to what some angrily call a "Christian club." Turkey's population of 67 million would make it the second largest country in the EU--and before long the biggest--radically changing the complexion of the Union. In fact, there is a clash of civilizations--but it's less between Muslim and Christian as it is a conflict between two visions of democracy. One errs on the side of freedom, the other on the side of order. The danger is that the EU will demand too much and offer too little, just as the Turks expect too much and think they don't need to change much more. That's not a recipe for a happy partnership. If today's bad feelings grow, the two sides may remain on separate tracks. And in Turkey, Ataturk's vision of modernity could well trump Brussels's.