Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of Turkey’s ‘Islamic party’, was finally confirmed in the prime minister’s office when he won a vote of confidence on July 8. He had formed a coalition government with Tansu Ciller, the former prime minister and leader of the True path party, on June 28, six months after his Refah (Welfare) Party became the largest single party in parliament.
The vote of confidence was disrupted by fighting among members of Turkey’s secular parties. One member of the opposition Motherland Party - whose leader Mesut Yilmaz resigned as prime minister on June 6, after three months in office - pulled a gun and had to be disarmed by security guards!
Erbakan ultimately won by 278 votes to 265, thanks to the support of seven members of the Grand-Unity Party. Their votes enabled him to win even though several members of Ciller’s True Path Party voted against their leader’s instructions. Ciller, who campaigned in the elections on the basis of keeping Erbakan out of power, is now Erbakan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
The pragmatism on Erbakan’s part suggested by his willingness to work with a woman who once called him ‘a force of darkness’, and whose main interest is to avoid prosecution for corruption, has also been seen in the government programmes he has put forward since coming to office. He has promised not to do anything to damage Turkey’s ‘democratic tradition’, to remain in NATO, to maintain strategic and international agreements ‘provided they do not damage national security’, and to maintain the customs agreement with the European Union, which Ciller considered her own greatest achievement.
He is also reported to have made positive contacts with the Israeli embassy in Ankara, which had expressed fears that his coming to power might mean the end of the military co-operation treaty it had signed with Turkey in February. Perhaps most significantly, the first item on the programme was that he would support the army’s purely military solution to the Kurdish situation. He had earlier campaigned on the basis of settling the Kurdish issue by giving them national and ethnic rights.
All these promises suggest that negotiations with military leaders may have played as big a part in his coming to office as negotiations with Ciller. Erbakan’s electoral success last December was greeted as a ‘triumph for Islam’ at the time, by both supporters and opponents, inside and outside the country. Refah became the largest party in parliament, with 29 percent of the seats. Many people speculated at the possibility of another military intervention to prevent any dilution of Turkey’s secularism. The Turkish army has traditionally been the guardian of Mustafa Kemal’s secular ‘utopia’. Thrice since his death, the army has taken over the running of the government fearing that secularism was under threat from Islam. Most western commentators would have welcomed a military coup, their democratic pretensions notwithstanding.
There are a number of reasons why the military has chosen not to intervene at this time. The rather anaemic nature of Erbakan’s Islamicity is probably not the major factor, considering the degree of their sensitivity on the subject. A more important factor appears to be the military’s awareness of the increasing support for Islam as a basis for social and political order among the Turkish people generally. In recent years, with the emergence of a global Islamic movement, political support for Islam has increased.
The emergence of Refah, despite its limitations, to control several municipal governments is only one sign of this. Another is the growth of the Naqshbandi and other sufi orders which are concerned with more than just personal piety.
Faced with these developments, the Turkish military apparently decided that it is better to try to limit the effectiveness of an Erbakan government than to risk popular condemnation for intervening to prevent one. In the months since Erbakan’s electoral success, the military has taken firm action in areas it considers crucial to Turkey’s survival as a secular, nationalist State. The object is to make it more difficult for Erbakan to move Turkey in the opposite direction, even if he wanted to.
These areas include enhancing Turkey’s links with NATO and the west (including Israel), maintaining due distance from other Muslim countries, and cracking down hard on the Kurds who are demanding national and linguistic rights in south-eastern Turkey. To this end, Turkey’s military has pledged to continue assisting the west in its operations against Iraq, despite popular demand that western aircraft stop operating against Iraq using Turkish bases. America, France and Britain have about 50 aircraft based in Pirinclik and Incirlik. These are supposedly used to protect the Kurdish enclaves in northern Iraq from Saddam Husain.
Ironically, another strand of the Turkish military’s strategy has been to step up military operations against the Kurds, to whom Erbakan had promised ethnic and other rights. Since April the army has been constantly attacking Kurdish groups and bases, despite the Kurdish Workers ‘ Party (PKK) having declared a unilateral ceasefire last year. These Turkish operations have included incursions into neighbouring Iraq to attack bases there, and even an incursion into Iran at the end of June where a number of villagers were killed or wounded.
These latter incursions into neighbouring countries also serve the military’s purpose by making Turkey’s relations with Muslim neighbours which Erbakan wants to improve, more difficult. In the last few months, the military has also targeted Syria, ostensibly blaming it for harbouring the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Turkey’s signing of a military co-operation pact with Israel in February serves the dual purpose of putting pressure on Erbakan - who cannot afford to cancel it, whatever his supporters might demand - and pleasing the West.
The prominence which Erbakan gave to these points in his government’s programme suggests that he knows he is in office on the military’s sufferance. While the public’s attention was drawn to the public politicking between Erbakan, Yilmaz and Ciller, the real action was taking place behind the scenes, between Erbakan and the military, with Turkish president Suleiman Demirel probably also involved.
Attempts to establish Islamic governments by democratic means have failed in Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt and numerous other countries. Turkey’s experiment is looking decidedly shaky already. Total change requires a revolution. The Erbakan experience will serve only to hasten the realization of this basic fact in Turkey.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996