Sample exam answer

Compare and contrast the events leading up to previous military coups in Turkey with the current political situation. (Mid-term exam, March 1997)

This question was set for an ELS 112 mid-term exam in 1997. Although we would not usually expect students to produce such a long and detailed essay under exam conditions, the following answer is a good example of a comparison/contrast essay which does more than simply compare subjects in a mechanical way, but actually uses this comparison to draw some meaningful conclusions.

At the time of writing, Turkey was governed by a coalition between the centre-right True Path Party (DYP) and the religious Welfare Party (RP).

In Ottoman times the usual way of getting rid of a Sultan was for the Janissaries to empty their huge cooking pot onto the floor of the Court of the Janissaries at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, thereby telling the Sultan that he no longer merited their support.  This tradition of the military ejecting the leaders of the state has continued into the Republican era, itself started by a group of former Ottoman generals, and there have been three coups in the last forty years: 27 May 1960, 12 March 1971, and 12 September 1980.  Recently, there have been rumours that the generals are once again about to throw their lunch on the floor.  The purpose of this essay is to examine whether, in view of the kinds of conditions before earlier coups, one is likely soon.

The main reason for people predicting a coup is the difference of opinions between the military-bureaucratic elite, and the DYP-RP coalition government.  Such people would point to two main cleavages.  The first one concerns the issue of secularism.  Secularism is fixed in the Turkish constitution and one of the roles of the Armed Forces is to guard the regime, which has secularism as a corner-stone: thus, any threat to secularism is likely to produce a hard reaction from the army.  A recent meeting (28 February) of the National Security Council, an organisation for letting the generals make their views known to the elected politicians, resulted in a memorandum calling on the government to take certain measures to block the rise of fundamentalism.  This was caused in part by the actions of the Refah Party a plan to build a mosque in Taksim Square in Istanbul, and a relaxation of the rules concerning headscarfs in government offices.  Viewed more seriously by the generals was a meeting organised by the Refah mayor of the Sincan suburb of Ankara to stress the problem of Jerusalem.  Here a group of youths put on a drama performance praising the actions of the Hizbollah, and the Iranian Ambassador called for a more Islamic state in Turkey: the army responded by sending tanks through Sincan's streets two days later. Pessimists would point out that the secularism issue played a major role in the build-up to the 1960 and 1980 military coups. 

The Democrat Party government that held power for ten years from 1950 had relaxed a large number of the measures controlling religion instituted by Mustafa Kemal in order to make his country more secular, i.e., non-Islamic.  This was a factor, though not the only one, motivating the coup-makers of 1960.  A few days before the 1980 coup, at a meeting of the parent of the Welfare Party in Konya, party members had refused to stand during the national anthem, preferring to show Islamic flags. This event has often been described as "the final straw" for the generals of the time.

A second, and less obvious, cleavage is the issue of populism versus paternalism.  The two parties in power are both openly populist, getting most of their support from the lower classes in the big cities and the citizens of rural and provincial Anatolia. The DYP is the child of the Justice Party ejected in 1971 and 1980; the Justice Party itself was the successor of the Democrat Party closed in 1960.  The historical lesson pointed to in private by many in the military and state elite is that populism leads to social chaos and political deadlock, as seen before all past coups.  They believe, perhaps correctly, that the Turkish population is insufficiently educated to be part of the process of governing.  Instead, an unselfish all-knowing ruling class should guide the population on the way to modernity, as in the first twenty-five years of the Republic. It is likely that many parts of higher society would support the army if they chose to save the masses from themselves, and that the army knows this.

The issue of political deadlock is an important one.  The Turkish Armed Forces, like soldiers all over the world, have a "get things done" attitude and dislike those, like politicians all over the world, who argue and never do anything. Due to the over-liberal 1961 Constitution, argument and inaction preceded the 1971 coup: this constitution gave a system of proportional representation, which encouraged the formation and representation of small parties - which often broke up into smaller ones - and, thus, weak coalition governments.  The 1980 coup came after a seven-month fight over who should succeed the retiring president, Admiral Fahri Koruturk.  This meant that no meaningful legislation was passed: Turkeys legislators instead preferred to argue and criticise each other while the country entered into economic, political, administrative and social chaos.  As the generals saw it, they had to take power.  The situation today is perhaps little better.  While there are a many problems (inflation, democratisation, privatisation etc.) waiting to be solved,  the parliamentary situation does very little to help.  After the election of December 1995, there was no meaningful government until the setting up of the present coalition in June of 1996.  Since then, the DYP-RP coalition government, not a strong one numerically or politically, has lost many deputies (mainly from the DYP) and been the target of many official inquiries.  Even amongst the opposition parties there has been a surprising amount of movement, both to parties in and out of the coalition.  It would be difficult for supporters of the coalition to find anything useful that has been done in its time in office.

Although the generals might worry about this political instability, it is nothing compared to the situations before previous military coups.  In both 1971 and 1980, the anarchy in parliament was reflected by real anarchy on the streets of Turkey as leftists and rightists killed each other in their thousands: it was all this killing that forced the generals to make a coup.  Although there might be occasional political violence in Western Turkey in 1997, it is not enough to really worry the generals.  Moreover, with the end of the Cold War, they no longer worry that Russia might use disorder in Turkey to weaken NATOs southern border.  Meanwhile, the violence in the South East of the country is slowly being solved. It could also be said that the military is too busy doing this to run the rest of the country as well.

Perhaps this lack of general civil chaos is the best  reason for doubting that a coup is coming. Although we can say the 1960 coup was political  (i.e., the result of a clash of views between the military and the party in power), the coups of 1971 and 1980 were moves to protect the security of  the country.  Following the 1960 coup, the National Security Council was founded so that the commanders could give their message officially to the civilian government; if this body had existed in 1960, a coup might have been avoided. On February 28, the generals used their constitutional right to show their disagreement with the government. If we see the present situation as closer to that of 1960 than those of 1971 and 1980 - taking into account both, on the one hand, the difference in views between soldiers and government and, on the other, the lack of stability-threatening political violence - then a coup is unlikely.

A coup at this time would only distance the military - the country's most respected institution - from the general population, who increasingly have democratic hopes.  Perhaps more importantly, a military takeover would damage Turkey's claim to belong to the Western family of nations, and, in particular, its hopes of joining the European Union. Secularism and paternalism may be important to the military, but at the same time they are unlikely to forget the claim of their guiding hero, Kemal Ataturk, that the sun rises in the West. Consequently, if the generals claim that they respect civilian government it is best to believe them.

© Alexander Rooke, 1997