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Strange alliances reflect the political bankruptcy of Kemalists in Turkey

Iqbal Siddiqui

Even before Turkish president Suleyman Demirel invited former prime minister Bulent Ecevit to form a government early this month, following the collapse of Mesud Yilmaz’s coalition on November 25, the Turkish military had made its position on the matter perfectly clear, and issued a sharp reminder of who really holds the strings in Ankara.

In a statement released before a meeting of the National Security Council on November 30, the military General Staff warned the country’s politicians against statements or actions which would ‘draw the armed forces into politics.’ As the military has assumed the mantle of safeguarding Mustafa Kemal’s secular fundamentalist legacy, this was a clear warning that the armed forces, who removed Necmettin Erbakan from the premiership last year for being too Islamic, would not look kindly on his party’s de facto successor, the Fazilat Party headed by Recai Kutan, being permitted a share of power, even though it is the largest Party in Parliament. The statement was made in response to comments by Fazilat leader Kutan that the military no longer objected to his party’s policies.

Turkey’s latest crisis was precipitated by the forced resignation of Yilmaz, who had been prime minister for 17 months, on November 25, after his government lost a vote of confidence in Parliament by the massive margin of 314 votes to 214. The vote had been called after allegations of corruption against Yilmaz personally, accusing him of meddling in the sale of a State bank and of having links with organized crime leaders. In view of True Path Party leader Tansu Ciller’s own record - her government collapsed in September 1995 largely under the weight of corruption allegations against her - the response of Yilmaz’s secular rival was ironic indeed: ‘Mr Yilmaz is the only prime minister in the history of the Republic to lose office because of corruption and abuse of power,’ she was quoted as saying.

According to Turkish convention, Kutan, as head of the largest party in Parliament, should have been automatically invited to form a government. However, president Demirel - himself a staunch secularist - clearly got the military’s message, defying the convention to invite Bulent Ecevit, leader of the Democratic Left Party, the fourth and smallest party in Parliament, to form a government. As Crescent International went to press, Ecevit, a nationalist veteran who served as prime minister three times in the 1970s, was still struggling to raise a parliamentary majority.

Yilmaz, whose Motherland party is the second largest in Parliament, quickly agreed to work with him, but Ciller, whose True Path Party is the third largest, indicated on December 8 that she would not support Ecevit’s premiership.

With Kutan out of the picture, and Yilmaz relegated to the back of the queue, she evidently feels she should have been appointed premier ahead of Ecevit. Demirel’s problem is that she and Yilmaz are bitter rivals, whose parties share a similar centre-right position, and neither is likely to agree to work under the other.

But, without the blacklisted Fazilat Party, virtually the only way of creating a parliamentary majority would be to bring both the largest secular parties in, hence Demirel’s call to Ecevit. Regarded as a credible and honest senior statesman of Turkish politics, Ecevit’s brief was to try to put together a Democratic-Motherland-True Path coalition in which Ciller and Yilmaz would have equal status as his deputies.

Ciller has floated the idea of a True Path-Fazilat coalition, despite the military’s opposition; Erbakan’s government was based on a coalition with her party. However, this is probably a threat more than a realistic prospect. A more likely alternative would be a national consensus government involving all parties. Both these alternatives would include Fazilat, albeit as a junior party. Ciller may be using this threat as a lever to gain a more senior position in an Ecevit administration, failing which she would probably prefer to exercise power as an outside support of a hamstrung minority government. Such are the unprincipled ambitions of Turkey’s secular politicians, and the convoluted paths of Turkey’s ‘democracy’, that almost anything short of a Kutan government remains possible.

The irony is that all these shenanigans are designed to exclude an ‘Islamist’ Party whose leadership is itself more than willing to compromise. In 1996, Erbakan came to power in alliance with the wholly discredited Tansu Ciller and found his hands tied at every turn, despite being the coalition’s senior member. Yet, after the collapse of Yilmaz’s administration, Kutan was quick to declare his willingness to work under another party leader, despite Fazilat’s being the largest party in Parliament. He has also tried to make Fazilat’s policies less unacceptable to the secular establishment, hence his comments which led to the military’s sharp rebuke.

Despite this weak leadership, however, the secular parties are so discredited that opinion polls indicate that the Fazilat Party will probably increase its share of parliamentary seats even further when the elections - expected in April - are held. The prospect of an even stronger ‘Islamist’ presence in parliament is what really scares the secularists and the military; the latter is reported to favour a postponement of elections by at least a year in order to have time to counter Fazilat’s strength.

However, the Refah party experience, resulting in its banning earlier this year, revealed the pointlessness of trying to Islamise the Turkish system by trying to keep the secularists happy. One of its results was a polarisation among Turkey’s Islamic activists, between those who favoured pursuing the political party approach by trying to be even more moderate and harmless, and those who understood the futility of this approach, and preferred taking a harder stance even though this would mean their exclusion from the established political order.

While Kutan tries to find a place for Fazilat in government, most of those who chose the latter approach find themselves imprisoned or banned from politics. It is their example, above all, which is inspiring the demonstrations against the banning of hijab and beards in universities which are continuing on the streets of major Turkish towns. And it is this trend which is likely to give the military far greater problems in the future than any ‘Islamist’ political party has done so far.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 20

Sha'ban 27, 14191998-12-16

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