BACKGROUND: The Turkish government made a point of distancing itself from Kenan Evren – the former general and president, who took power in a coup on September 12, 1980 – who died on May 9 at the age of 98. No government representatives were present, as is customary, at the funeral services of the former head of state. Indeed, Evren died in disgrace: in 2014, a court in Ankara sentenced him to life imprisonment, and stripped him of his rank. The sentence was subsequently appealed to a higher instance and was yet to become final. But the humiliation that the sentence amounted to notwithstanding, Evren’s political legacy has been preserved.
The trial of Evren, and of Tahsin Şahinkaya, the other surviving member of the junta that ruled from 1980 to 1983, was a case of political show; it did not translate any desire on the part of the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to revoke the legacy of the 1980 coup, on the contrary. Evren’s system – the authoritarian constitution, the Higher Education Board (YÖK) which ensures that intellectual life at state universities is suffocated, and an education system with a strong Sunni Islamic tilt – remains in place. To all intents and purposes, Evren was the “father” of the “New Turkey” that the AKP is fond of brandishing. The AKP did not have to invent anything; the party has administered a regime, which rests on the twin pillars of neoliberal economic policies plus Islamization – the latter serving the purpose of securing the acquiescence of the popular masses to the former – that Evren and his junta invented.
One representative of the AKP, Burhan Kuzu, a parliamentarian and an expert on constitutional law, did recognize the debt that the “New Turkey” owes to Evren: Kuzu wrote on his twitter account that the former president’s “most important accomplishment was to make the instruction of religion and ethics mandatory in the elementary and middle levels of the education system.”
Even though the AKP has made good use of the system that Evren bequeathed, disgracing him was nonetheless politically opportune. Evren’s trial served the purpose of bolstering the AKP’s democratic credentials among urban liberals, as had similarly been the case with the symbolically charged choice of September 12 as the date for the 2010 referendum on constitutional amendments; the impression that the AKP thus sought to convey was that it was settling accounts with Evren’s legacy, when in fact the purpose was to ensure that the AKP – through its allies at the time, the Gülenists – established full control over the judiciary.
IMPLICATIONS: The Turkish military is supposedly the “guardian of secularism.” Kenan Evren, the general who imposed Islamization on society, made that notion unsustainable. But Evren’s “accomplishments” – and the fact that his legacy has survived – undermine dominant historical narratives also in other respects.
Both the intellectually hegemonic liberal-Islamist historical narrative and its mirror image, the traditional Kemalist narrative – which is nowadays wholly out of intellectual fashion – posit that the Turkish state has historically been, so to speak, suspended above society, with the state bureaucracy pursuing goals independently from social classes and their clashing interests, which never figure in neither of these two narratives. But what the military did in 1980 was that it took action chiefly against the working class – crushing the left, and establishing a political-economic order in the service of the bourgeoisie.
The Kemalist narrative used to celebrate the state as the “savior” of society, as an agent of the “enlightenment” of society since the last century of the Ottoman Empire. The liberal-Islamist narrative – which has been hegemonic in Turkish academic discourse since the 1990s – meanwhile condemns the state as the oppressor of “civil society.” The liberal-Islamist narrative conjures a state-periphery confrontation that blurs class distinctions; alternatively it asserts that Turkish politics is defined by the fact that the bourgeoisie has been dependent on the bureaucracy and that it has therefore been unable to promote democratization. Liberal intellectuals conjure the specter of entrepreneurs as the victim of the bureaucracy – when in fact the state has been in the service of industrialist interests. Next, liberals and Islamists claim that an “authentic” bourgeoisie – pious, conservative businessmen – has risen against the state and through the intermediary of its representative – the AKP – finally broken the hold of the bureaucracy.
Yet, the liberal-Islamist theoretical model cannot account for why what is hailed as a force of the “periphery”, “civil society,” or is alternatively celebrated as the representative of an “authentic bourgeoisie” has entrenched a coercive regime. The excuse of the liberals is that the AKP has “gone native in Ankara”, claiming that the party has been contaminated by the perennial authoritarianism of the state. However, Turkey’s military coups reveals that what has been decisive for derailing democracy historically is class conflicts, not the power urges of a supposedly autonomous state elite that is isolated from these dynamics, even though other factors – the internal dynamics of the military, the international context – have played in as well.
The military’s capacity for intervention in politics has been inversely proportional to the ability of the bourgeoisie to establish hegemonic rule. The first military coup of the Turkish republic, on May 27, 1960, occurred against the background of the weakness of the new urban, industrial class fraction relative to the big landowner class that dominated the ruling, conservative Democrat Party (DP). The economic policies of the DP government privileged agricultural interests, and especially those of the big landowners, at the expense of the emerging, private industrial sector. While agriculture was supported with credits and tax breaks, industry was submitted to price controls, limits on credits and the government resisted the calls for industrial planning policies to encourage industrial growth. The policies that were put in place after the coup remedied this situation, introducing the framework that industrial interests had been calling for. The political system was also adapted to fit those interests; constitutional arrangements were made to restrict the power of the elected government.
Conventionally, this has been interpreted as an attempt to restore the power of the bureaucracy. It was in fact an attempt to deal with the minority status of the urban classes in a country dominated by a peasant population: Popular will had worked against the interests of industrial capital, as electoral arithmetic had encouraged the DP government to dismiss the demands of industry, and privilege the interests of the majority, its rural base.
The 1960 coup cleared the way for the ascendancy of the industrial class, but in its wake a new pattern of conflict emerged that posed a new form of threat to its interests. The growth of the industrial sector brought with it a conflict between labor and capital that destabilized Turkey. After the coup in 1971 left the job half-done, the 1980 coup secured the hegemony of the industrial bourgeoisie. But by the 1990s the Western-oriented fraction of the bourgeoisie had come to feel threatened by the rise of a conservative, Islamic bourgeois rival fraction. That set the stage for the coup on February 28, 1997. The state apparatus was mobilized against what was described as “green capital.” In a recent interview in the daily Zaman, the former general and former chief of Military Intelligence, İsmail Hakkı Pekin, points out that “February 28 was prepared with the Armed forces in cooperation with the business circles. It was not only the work of the military.”
CONCLUSIONS: When the AKP came to power, it held out the promise of serving the interests of both fractions of the business class. The working class had already been co-opted with Islamic identity politics during the 1990s. The secular fraction of the bourgeoisie and “green capital” rallied together behind AKP. The Islamists seemed to have embraced Turkey’s Western orientation. The AKP’s drive for EU membership was in particular reassuring for the secular business interests; it suggested that the Islamists had abandoned the ambition to orient Turkey economically as well politically away from the West, which had so alarmed the secular business interests during the 1990s, leading to the 1997 coup.
History could have ended there. For the first time, the industrial bourgeoisie of Turkey no longer seemed to face any challenge: not from the working class, nor from within. That was ultimately why the notion of another military coup had come to appear anachronistic: the dynamic that had set the stage for all the coups, the fact that the most developed fraction of the bourgeoisie had always needed a helping hand in order to prevail against other fractions and classes was simply no longer present.
Today, however, industrial interests have reason to be much less satisfied with the course that the AKP regime is pursuing, as the party is privileging primitive crony capitalism. Conjuring the specter of class warfare, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently claimed that “capital is changing hands.” If so, that is a process that is bound to unleash new political convulsions.
Halil Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Scott Sutherland)