Skip to main content

A Brief History of Turkey’s Messy Civil-Military Relations

The events in Turkey Friday night and early Saturday morning were not an unexpected departure from its past. The country’s military has long viewed itself as a check against authoritarian behavior.

By Kristina Kutateli


(Photo: Didier Baertschiger/Flickr)

The situation in Turkey remains in flux: Though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has returned to Istanbul, the New York Times reports that at least 60 have been killed and nearly 800 have been arrested.

Late Friday evening, the prime minister of Turkey said that military forces were attempting to overthrow the president’s government. At around 10 p.m. Turkish time, the military closed two of Istanbul’s bridges. Fighter jets screamed over the capital city of Ankara, and tanks rolled near Istanbul’s airport. A state of martial law was declared.

In a video posted to Twitter, a civilian asked a Turkish soldier what was going on when the events began. “The military has stepped into power,” the soldier responded. “This is a coup, this is not a joke — go home.”

This is the sixth military intervention since the republic’s inception in 1923, and the third marked by extended violence.

A spokesman for the Erdoğan government responded to the military’s attempt by announcing that the president was still in power. “Turkey’s democratically elected president and government are in power. We will not tolerate attempts to undermine our democracy,” he said, according to Guardian sources. “We urge the world to stand in solidarity with the Turkish people.”

The Turkish military issued a statement of its own: “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and the general security that was damaged. All international agreements are still valid. We hope that all of our good relationships with all countries will continue.”

Modern Turkey is no stranger to military coups: This is the sixth intervention since the republic’s inception in 1923, and the third marked by extended violence. The first occurred in May of 1960. The military is considered the oldest social institution in Turkey, and the Turkish Armed Forces have intervened consistently to maintain what it believes to be a secular and democratic government, as envisioned by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The military’s interventions, however, are often political, and take the form of statements or “suggestions,” rather than the full-fledged dissolutions of government seen in 1960 and 1980.

In a International Journal of Constitutional Law paper, Ozan Varol, a professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School, writes that the “Turkish model” of government “refers to a particular mold of civil-military relations” in which the military acts as a fourth branch of government to check authoritarian tendencies and views itself as a guardian of Turkish democracy. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Varol writes, the Turkish military “was ideally suited to lead the transition of the nation from a sultanate to a republic” as it “valued the traditions of the Ottoman past” but also sought democratization and “satisfied the public’s longing for a stable and legitimate guardian.”

Varol explains that, in 1960, the “military played a crucial role in Turkish modernization and democratization during the coup and in its immediate aftermath — a role that has been largely obscured by the current portrayal of the Turkish military as a hegemonic and repressive institution.” At the time of the 1960 coup, the military had assumed a central position in society as a “modern social institution and a crucial agent of modernization.”

In 1971, Turkey saw its military’s second intervention — this time in the form of political demands. Following a period of mass economic stagnation and unrest, the Turkish Armed Forces demanded the formation of “strong and credible government, inspired by Ataturk’s views.”

The “Turkish model” of government “refers to a particular mold of civil-military relations” in which the military acts as a fourth branch of government to check authoritarian tendencies.

Economic stagnation continued into the ’70s, and violent political clashes between right- and left-wing parties left thousands dead, leading military officials to impose martial law and dissolve the government in September of 1980. In the years that followed, Turkey’s economy dramatically recovered, but the military also detainedhundreds of thousands of people.

The Islamist Welfare Party (of which Erdoğan is a former member) took power in 1995. Viewing this as a threat to secular democracy, the military issued a series of “suggestions” — which analysts call a “post-modern coup” — including a ban of veils at universities, which the prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, accepted. Erbakan was then forced to resign, and the Welfare Party fell apart in 1998.

In 2007, the Turkish military enacted an “e-coup,” issuing an online statement that objected to Abdullah Gul becoming president. Gul, however, became president anyway. His party, AK, won a 47 percent share of the votes in the election. “The army tried to dictate its will and the people said no,” a European Union diplomat in Ankara told the Economist in 2010, “and what’s happened since shows that the army is losing its power.” The e-coup heightened tensions between the popular, incumbent AK Party — a party with roots in political Islam — and secularists.

The current chaos serves as a test to the “Turkish model” of governance and poses a larger question: What role — if any — should the military play in a modern democracy?