Friday, 27 July 2007

No Coup in Sight

Turkey expert William Hale says Turkey's generals are unlikely to repeat past coups if the Justice and Development Party retains power

TURKS head to the polls on July 22 to elect a new parliament. The election was brought up from October due to a presidential crisis, after the current president and constitutional court refused to accept a replacement elected by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). President Necdet Sezer and the court are staunchly secular, whereas the AKP is perceived by many Turks as being Islamic. 

The party had nominated Prime Minister Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a headscarf - in Turkey deemed a strong, anti-secular political statement. The upcoming election, therefore, is seen as a battle between secularists and Islamists; but also between democracy and the state, because one of the big questions hovering over it is whether the army would intervene to prevent the likely continued reign of AKP. 

The AKP came to power in 2002. Was there a time when an army coup against it was a possibility, and is it a possibility if the party wins again on July 22? 

Immediately after the AKP was elected, [the chairman of the joint chiefs] General [Hilmi] Ozkok accepted the victory. I don't think the army was terribly pleased. He also accepted the Annan plan for Cyprus. He was generally "with" Erdogan. 

[His successor, Yasar] Buyukanit is more of a hawk and opposed to Erdogan. On April 27 there was a strong statement on the armed forces' website strongly opposing Islamisation, which was taken by people as a hint that the army might launch an intervention against AKP. 

I think there are people who probably would like to unseat Erdogan but you have to consider the problems here. If they launched an outright coup, there would undoubtedly be an extremely hostile reaction from the European Union, the United States, the business community in Turkey, which is absolutely critical, and existing politicians - for instance, [opposition leader] Deniz Baykal attacked the April 27 memo. It would be extremely difficult to push this thing through against almost universal opposition. 

There's also the second consideration - suppose they launched coup d'etat and took over power. What then? Run the country as a military dictatorship ad infinitum? It's impossible to say. I just don't think they have a plan for what they'd do if they took over power, because they couldn't get politicians to cooperate with them. The consequences of a coup would be disastrous for Turkey and I think they'd be pretty serious for Greece, too. 

Is Recep Tayyip Erdogan a fundamentalist Islamist?

In 2005 Prime Minister Erdogan considered recriminalising adultery. One other incident was he proposed a head of the central bank who was thought to be fairly close to the Islamists and had in fact previously worked in an Islamist bank in the Middle East. These were quite worrying moves. But the evidence in most cases is that if he's faced with very strong opposition (sometimes from within his own party) then he's liable to soften his approach. But I think his problem is he has about 80 fairly hardline backbenchers at the moment and he has to give them some crumbs of comfort. 

Is the Turkish investment in Cyprus sentimental or practical - a matter of self-esteem, or leverage against the Cypriot veto to eventual Turkish EU membership? 

I think the Turkish government would like a settlement in Cyprus because this would be essential for their eventual admission to the EU. 

Has Erdogan's 'no' to passage of US troops through Turkish airspace into northern Iraq in 2003 turned into a liability?

Some people have seen it as a mistake. I don't think that is the majority opinion. The number one item is the PKK. What the US appears to be saying is, 'We're launching a worldwide campaign against terrorism, but if the terrorists are attacking somebody else, not us, well, that's all right, we're not doing anything about it.' That's how lots of Turks see it. 

Is there not fear of a quagmire in northern Iraq if Turkish troops stage a large-scale invasion to mop up alleged PKK strongholds?

There is a lingering suspicion that the US would like to promote an independent Kurdish state where they would maintain air bases etc even after a general pullout from Iraq. They've said they're not going to do this, but you never know, there might be some change of line in America. I don't think it's terribly likely, but it's just conceivable. The other worry is that the US pulls out of Iraq before the government of Iraq has re-established control over the whole country. Or at least reduces its troop levels to much lower than they are at the moment and Iraq collapses into an extremely messy and destructive civil war.

I think the point for Turkey and for all the other neighbouring countries is to make sure the struggle in Iraq does not become a proxy struggle between its neighbours. In other words, the worry is to repeat the sort of story you had in the Lebanon, where the civil war became a proxy war between Israel and Syria, and at one time between Israel, Syria and the US. I don't think anyone can win in that situation. It's just a damage-limitation exercise. And if you can get agreement between the neighbouring states not to intervene, this would be the best you could reasonably hope for, and that the civil war in Iraq will gradually burn itself out.

What would happen if the US did recognise a Kurdish state in northern Iraq?

It would be opposed by Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, which fears that the partition of Iraq could lead to a Shiite state. Turkey would always see a Kurdish state on its border as an irredentist danger. 

William Hale has recently retired as professor in political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London and now teaches at Sabanci University in Istanbul

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