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  • Redefining Turkey’s Political Center
  • Cengiz Çandar (bio)

In Turkey, things are not always what they seem. On 18 April 1999, the country held competitive elections for its 550-member unicameral parliament, the Grand National Assembly. It was the thirteenth consecutive open election that Turkey has held since 1946. Approximately 87 percent of Turkey’s 37.6 million registered voters turned out at the polls, undeterred by the complexities of an electoral process in which they were expected to cast multiple ballots (up to six in some areas). Voters chose from among 850,000 candidates representing 21 parties, who were competing for 280,000 elective offices, ranging from the 550 seats in the Grand National Assembly to thousands of mayoral, city council, and village headman posts.

The results of these elections indicated an upsurge for Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party and the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party. These parties won 22 and 18 percent of the vote, respectively, outpolling the Virtue Party, the successor to the Welfare Party (Refah), an Islamist formation that had become the legislature’s largest party as a result of the December 1995 elections. The previous elections in November 1991 had ended in victory for the political center. In fact, the government has changed as a result of each of Turkey’s last four elections. As Bernard Lewis points out, if one judges according to Samuel P. Huntington’s dictum that a country [End Page 129] is a democracy when it has made two consecutive peaceful changes of government through free elections, Turkey would seem to make the grade. 1

Yet few would describe Turkey as a liberal democracy. Many scholars, democratic theoreticians, and other observers depict Turkish democracy as “illiberal” (although Fareed Zakaria himself never cited Turkey as an example in his celebrated essay, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”). 2 Others describe Turkey as a “military,” “imperfect,” “minimalist,” or at best, “electoral” democracy. 3

The consolidation of democratic rule in Turkey has been interrupted by overt military interventions in 1960, 1971, and 1980, and most recently by what I have dubbed the “postmodern coup” 4 in 1997 that led to the removal of the government of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Welfare Party, which had governed in coalition with Tansu Çiller’s True Path Party. Through this most recent intervention, known euphemistically in Turkey as the “28 February Process,” the military entrenched itself deeper in the political system while ingeniously maintaining a façade of democracy, including multiparty politics, on-time local elections, and even a changing of the guard in the national parliament. Yet this latest military intervention, like its predecessors, has met with surprisingly little protest from the West, even at a time when “third-wave” democracies are expanding and illiberal democracy is on the wane around the world. 5

One reason for this is that Western experts have been impressed by the unique qualities that distinguish the Turkish military from its counterparts in Latin America and the rest of the Third World. The following passage from C.H. Dodd is an example of this decades-old Western attitude and conviction: “[T]he military’s intervention was intended to effect significant changes in, though not to overthrow, the existing liberal and democratic system. Because it has not sought to overthrow the system itself—and to impose, say, an authoritarian military or single-party regime—the Turkish military is frequently regarded as the guardian of democracy.” 6 Yet as I will show, because of the scope of military intervention and the constraints on civilian politics, there is room for debate about whether Turkey should even be considered an electoral democracy or might more properly be classified among what Larry Diamond calls “pseudodemocracies.” 7

How “Military Democracy” Works

In order to understand how the democratic process works in Turkey, and what hinders it, it is important to understand the place and the function of the military in the Turkish body politic. Unlike Western armies, the Turkish military is politically autonomous and can operate outside the constitutional authority of democratically elected [End Page 130] governments. It can influence the government both directly and indirectly, controlling politicians according to its own ideas...