Columbia University’s Richard Bulliet explains why Turkey is susceptible to military coups

Historians in the News
tags: Turkey, Erdogan, Turkey Coup

Late Friday afternoon, a faction of the Turkish military launched an attempt to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This is far from the first time Turkey’s military (or at least a part of it) has done something like this — indeed, the military has overthrown Turkey’s civilian government four different times since 1960.

Richard Bulliet, a professor of history at Columbia University specializing in the Middle East, explains that the military has been viewed as the "heart of the country" going back to the earliest days of the founding of the modern Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, and that it was the military’s commitment to Ataturk’s secularist vision and to stability that has driven all of these coups.

Moreover, Turkey’s President Erdogan has made a lot of enemies in the country, notably the Gülen Movement, a religious-social group that Erdogan has accused of being behind the coup (though the group has denied thisand said it does not support the coup).

Bulliet and I spoke Friday about the developments in Turkey. A transcript follows, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Matteen Mokalla: Coups have happened a number of times in Turkey’s modern history. Why is that?

Richard Bulliet: In the beginning of the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the people around him were all military officers. The military was seen as the heart of the country. Atatürk’s slogan was "peace at home and peace abroad." It really was a military dictatorship, but a rather benign military dictatorship.

When Turkey wanted to enter into NATO, they felt that a democratic structure was essential for that. So in 1950, an election was held that was not a one-party election where Atatürk’s party was the only one running, but one where a second party, a genuine opposition called the Democrat Party, won.

The Democrat Party had a lot of electoral strength in the Eastern part of the country where they had a lot of religious supporters. There was something of an anti-secular tone to that election, too.

After 10 years, in 1960, the military staged a coup and arrested the president and the prime minister in a bloodless fashion. They [the military] took over the country. The prime minister and the president were both tried. The prime minister was executed and the president was given a long prison sentence.

Over time you had a new party alignment that came up through the country, turning Turkey politically into left and right factions. Another coup occurred in 1971. These coups were really designed by the military to prevent the democratic process from becoming too chaotic or too violent.

After the coup, a committee of army officers would more or less run the country and then bring it back to new democratic elections. Often it was parties that the army favored that would come into power.

But it really was sort of a clash between two things: 1) the military’s absolute devotion to the legacy of Atatürk as a nationalist and as a secularist, and 2) as a man who would bring order and progress to the country. ...

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