It is quite arduous to comprehend Turkey’s power dynamics from the outside. The country sets a very good example to the Islamic world given its secular and democratic regime. It has good ties with the West, is an EU candidate and is an indispensable ally to the U.S. in terms of military and democracy besides acting as a bridge. In short, Turkey is one of the most influential countries in the Middle East.
Still, wrong deductions might be made about the country if the political landscape of Turkey is analyzed like a Western democracy by only considering the abovementioned aspects. The main dynamic leading one to be mistaken is the structure of political institutions in Turkey.
Unfortunately, the political scene in Turkey had been very volatile for years, including the first years of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule. Although politicians were ostensibly ruling the country, the realm of politics was restricted within the limits determined by the military and judicial bureaucracy. The state apparatuses used to have an array of ultra-secular and bigoted limitations, and when it was thought that politicians were disregarding the restrictions, the system would topple them in a coup, with a memorandum, or by means of the judiciary.
Consequently, Turkey was a republic in which Kurds, Alevis, Armenians, Greeks and all groups other than Sunni Muslim Turks with secular lifestyles were not allowed to live in line with their identities. Those opposed to this were punished with the death penalty, imprisonment or exile. However, when viewed from the outside, it still seemed as a country in which there were Western-style ruling powers and elections carried out transparently.
The AK Party undauntedly took the first step to radically transform this bankrupt, old system. It was certain that the party coming to power in 2002 perturbed the military and judiciary. In 2007, the General Staff released a statement to intervene in the presidential election held that same year. In 2008, a lawsuit was filed to shut down the party. Both cases clearly illustrate that the system had waged war on the AK Party.
However, unlike his predecessors, the AK Party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, preferred fighting against the system and transforming it instead of preparing a survival kit that would only offer temporary and facile solutions within the tutelary system. Accomplishing this was far from easy since the ruling party did not have any trustworthy establishment within the state apparatuses while all the judiciary and military circles were against them. In order to overcome the putschist circles, there was no alternative but to trust the operatives of Fetullah Gülen in the state institutions. Gülenists were also aggrieved by the same tutelary regime and shared similar Islamic beliefs and values with the ruling party. Plus, they were well-organized. For this reason, Erdoğan made room for Gülenists in the civil service cadres with the aim to eliminate the threat posed to the AK Party and prevent military coups.
Today, those who blame Erdoğan and the AK Party governments distort the facts of the recent past. Unfortunately, Gülen operatives, whom we regard as terrorist militants in the current context, hampered settling accounts with the abovementioned military and judiciary tutelage forces with forged evidence and perjury in accordance with their own agenda. They even led to the legitimization of the conventional putschists.
But in the current situation, we always need to keep certain things about Turkey in mind. The AK Party has been the ruling power in Turkey for 15 years now and has managed to gain support of nearly 50 percent of the electorate so far. Can one predict the proportion of AK Party proponents within the Turkish military? Normally, the AK Party would be expected to have around 50 percent support in the military since this is the rate of voter support the party enjoys and the military is supposed to reflect society in its make-up. This is the case in the U.S. and Europe. However, according to studies conducted within the Turkish military, the proportion of AK Party voters there does not even reach 1 percent. Today, more than 80 percent of the military has the mindset I described above and call themselves Kemalists. In other words, even though Erdoğan has been trying to change the system for years, the system still strives to protect itself through the military. So, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which does not reflect the general sentiment in the country whatsoever in terms of political tendencies, is guarding Turkey, which is utterly perturbing. Ahead of the first anniversary of the atrocious July 15 coup attempt, it would be useful to recall all these factors. We repelled a fatal coup threat and a sweeping fight against the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) is ongoing, but FETÖ is not the only source of the problems. We must not fall into the mistake of reducing all the tutelage forces to FETÖ. The future of Turkey’s democracy will not be secured unless the system is completely transformed. It is of vital importance for the West to approach the Turkish government by acknowledging these facts.