Turkey: An Army in Retreat

You'd think Turkey should be in turmoil right now. When Abdullah Gul, once a passionate Islamist, was nominated for the presidency back in April, millions of concerned citizens took to the streets to protest. The main opposition boycotted the vote in Parliament, which elects the country's presidents. And Turkey's once all-powerful military issued a strong condemnation of Gul's nomination, warning that the "core values of the republic" were under threat. "The military is saying that if necessary, they can make their voice louder, and their actions stronger," retired general Riza Kucukoglu told reporters in April.

Yet Gul is now poised to become president after all. And instead of chaos, Turkey is calm. Backed by a landslide election victory last month for his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), the former foreign minister is now preparing to move into the presidential palace. The economy is booming, and the papers are dominated by news of the current heat wave—and speculation about how Gul's wife, Hayrunisa, will tie her controversial headscarf when she becomes First Lady. All the dire assumptions about national strife and even military intervention have come to nothing.

What happened? For one, the Turkish people chose to disregard the military's warnings and renewed the AKP's mandate with a resounding 47 percent of the vote. More important, the archsecularists in the Army, civil service and judiciary who opposed Gul's rise so fiercely seem to have accepted defeat. That is a hugely significant moment in Turkey's political culture—one that represents a milestone in the country's road to true democracy.

The key to the AKP's success since it came to power in 2002 has been to steer clear of religious issues almost completely. As a government, for instance, it has not moved to strike down Turkey's ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state buildings, schools and universities—though Hayrunisa Gul did bring an unsuccessful private suit in the European Court of Human Rights against the ban. Instead, the AKP has stuck to issues like fixing the economy and reforming Turkey's laws to prepare for EU membership.

At a minimum, the controversy over Gul's rise has less to do with a standoff between secularists and Islamists than a seismic change in the country's elites. The last generation has seen a major shift in economic and political power from Turkey's republican old guard—represented by Istanbul-based businessmen, civil servants and Westernized intellectuals—to a newly rich class of small businessmen from Anatolia, who tend to be socially conservative and religious. The old elite has tried to use the issue of secularism, argues Ihsan Dagi, professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University, to preserve its privileges. "The 'fight against the headscarf' is the attempt of a privileged minority to dominate the rest," says Dagi. "The invention and exaggeration of an [Islamist] threat is the key to power for those who are accustomed to governing this country by intimidation."

So does Gul's victory mean a decisive defeat for that privileged minority—and for Turkey's military, which was for most of the republic's history more powerful than civilian governments, toppling four in as many decades? With the AKP so popular, the military's traditional last resort of a coup—hard or soft—is out of the question. That leaves the military with few cards left to play—except to pointedly not invite the headscarved Mrs. Gul to official military receptions. Gul, for his part, is also likely to behave as tactfully as possible. The military, though it has lost a major political battle, retains a powerful hold on ordinary Turks, who consistently name it as the country's most trusted institution. Call it a political draw: the military will have to quietly accept defeat at the hands of its former enemies, while the former Islamists, now in control of Parliament and presidency, will likely refrain from attacking sacred cows like the military's vast (and secretive) business holdings and budget. Both sides are burdened with bad memories of the other. Turkey's Islamists have an uncomfortable history of extremism, while the military has often been quick to crush democracy. One hopes both can now put their pasts behind them, and prove that a former Islamist can be a pragmatic president, and that generals can be true democrats.

Join the Discussion