Turkey’s referendum: The final blow against the deep state?

Internationally and domestically, criticism of constitutional changes proposed by Turkish parliament has centered on claims that they would make Turkey less democratic. Yet supporters argue they are essential to protect democracy from shadowy forces.

President Erdogan campaigns to adopt the constitution to create a stronger presidency. Turkey will vote on this pivotal change on April 16.

Updated Apr 4, 2017
Murat Sofuoglu Murat Sofuoglu is a staff writer at TRT World @Readingavenue

Ever since the attempted coup last July, Turkey has been going through an exceptionally difficult period. It was the first time in the 94 year history of the Republic that the country was able to resist a military coup – Turkey has experienced a coup nearly every decade since 1960.

This time, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on citizens to take to the streets. The mostly conservative masses went outside and faced off against the tanks, helicopters, and warplanes of the Turkish military. More than 200 people were killed and hundreds of others were wounded on the fateful night of July 15.

Following the coup attempt, Erdogan launched an intense campaign to change the country’s parliamentary system into a fully fledged presidential model.

In much of the world, military coups tend to be linked to right-wing political agendas. In Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, however, they are more likely to win support from much of the left –  and be used against conservative governments.

A prominent Turkish socialist, Idris Kucukomer, asserted in the 1970s that the country’s “left is the right, and its right is the left.” That assertion stirred a heated debate in Turkish socialist circles that has continued ever since. It has also reinforced criticism from some conservatives, who accuse the country’s leftist party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP) – which was established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country's secularist founder – and most of the other leftist movements with being elitist and not always democratic.

Kucukomer criticised the left for being the rigid and inflexible defender of the country’s old guard, which was grounded in a broad alliance between military and staunchly secularist civilian elites. Kucukomer found the right, meanwhile, to be more revolutionary and more allied to ordinary Turks because of its ability to reach people from a wide range of backgrounds.

In the middle of Turkey’s intense debate on whether the country should change its governance system or not, the peculiar tension between the Turkish left and right swings like a pendulum in the country’s political circles.

Turkey currently has a parliamentary system. In 2007, an initial step towards a more presidential model was made, when the constitution was modified to introduce a direct vote on the presidency. Now, Erdogan proposes to adopt the constitution to create a stronger presidency. Turkey will vote on this change on April 16.

Erdogan, a strong conservative leader, is advocating a fundamental change in the country’s governance model, while Turkey’s prominent secularist and leftist groups passionately fight to protect the status quo. Each side defends its position in the name of democracy.

Students visit the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. His mausoleum has long been a visiting site for state officials and people to show loyalty to his principles, known as Kemalism. (AP)

Kucukomer, who was a professor of economics, wrote several books arguing that the Turkish political system was alienated from the population. He argued that Turkey’s Kemalist order had created a bureaucratic state which put its own authority above all else, including ordinary people.

Erdogan bought Kucukomer’s books in the 1990s, when he was running in the Istanbul metropolitan elections, according to a book titled Marxist Historiographies: A Global Perspective, (edited by Q. Edward Wang and Georg G. Iggers and published in 2016).

The concept of bureaucratic oligarchy has been a common theme among some socialist intellectual circles around the world. Erdogan has been outspoken in his harsh criticism of Turkish bureaucracy, and views the referendum as part of the struggle against it.

“As state officials, we have been commissioned to dismantle bureaucratic difficulties and obstacles. My biggest enemy is the bureaucratic oligarchy,” he declared during a speech in April 2016.

Last month, Erdogan brought up the bureaucratic oligarchy again. “It is obvious that the country needs a new constitution and governance system” to get rid of the bureaucratic oligarchy, he said, referring to the approaching referendum.

“The issue of a presidential system which we are today talking about is not something which emerged overnight. There is a considerable background behind this [proposal]. It is certainly not about the issue of being a republic. It is certainly not about the issues of democracy and freedom either,” Erdogan emphasised.

“The system we are debating here is the best solution to Turkey and to the Turkish nation’s beka [the concept of “beka” loosely means “the state must survive”] issue, which goes back to centuries. That’s that.”

Fighting Turkey’s deep state

Nihat Bulut, dean of the Istanbul Sehir University Law School, told TRT World that there is little possibility that the constitutional change would lead to authoritarian rule.

“The proposal does not introduce any kind of one-man rule. It is unfair to describe the proposal such a way. It could not be judged as a diversion from liberal constitutionalism,” Bulut observed.

“But there are obviously clauses which could be subject to criticism,” he added, pointing to the direct appointment of vice presidents by the president, and the holding of the presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously.

“In a classic presidential system, there is no such practice of doing both elections at the same time,” he said.   

Bulent Orakoglu, the former intelligence chief for the police department, evaluates the proposal through the lens of his own experience of how the state functions. He tried to prevent the February 28, 1997 coup by informing the then-Erbakan government of the plot, only to find himself prosecuted and imprisoned by a heavily military-influenced Turkish court on charges that he had spied against the military.


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“We know there is a deep [state] structure in Turkey. We need to fight with that structure. And the first person who has gone after this deep [state] structure in a serious manner has been the president,” Orakoglu told TRT World.

Cevat Ones, a former deputy director of Turkey’s national intelligence agency, favours reform and building a stronger democracy, but says the proposed constitutional reform is not the right method to achieve this. Although he believes that Turkey’s current system does not do enough to build a true democratic system or to protect the rule of law, he worries the proposed changes would lead to a system centred too much on the personalities of individual leaders.

“Whenever we try to deal with this issue of beka, we always try to reshape our system around a particular individual,” Ones said, pointing to Turkey’s recent history.

A regionwide issue

Turkey is far from the only country in the region to struggle to resolve the balance of power between the official government and murky networks of power that operate in the shadows.

As Erdogan was emerging as a young politician of the religiously-inspired Welfare Party in the 1990s, it was in the immediate aftermath of the rise and fall of the first religiously-inspired movement in the region. Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Party (FIS) had won the first round of elections in the North African country in 1991, only to be blocked from almost certain victory by a military coup and Algeria's own deep state structure. The country descended into civil war after a brutal crackdown on FIS politicians and supporters.

Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, waves to supporters in Istanbul in 1998. Erdogan was imprisoned by a Turkish court shortly after on charges of violating the country’s strict secularism. (AP)

Then Turkey’s Welfare Party was itself banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, Erdogan was imprisoned by a Turkish court on charges of violating the country’s strict secularism following a military-orchestrated political maneuvering in 1997.

In 2013, Erdogan also witnessed as a prime minister how Egypt’s democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood government, led by Mohammed Morsi, one of the AK Party’s closest allies, was overthrown by the Egyptian army. Around a thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters were massacred and arrested en masse, in what Human Rights Watch has described as “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”.

“On the brink of the abyss”

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire lost much of its territory in its Balkan, Middle Eastern and Caucasian provinces to various enemies, ranging from the British, French, and Italian colonialist powers to Tsarist Russia.

Suleyman Demirel experienced two military coups, both as Turkey’s prime minister (when he was ousted) and then president (when he participated). He says there was a creeping sense in the Ottoman political establishment that the country was “on the brink of the abyss.” There are specific old Ottoman terms describing these concepts: Hufre-i inkiraz, describes a state of being on “the brink of the abyss,” and pence-i izmihlal, which means “being on the verge of collapse.”

“After the Ottoman [Empire] collapsed, these two fears have been imbedded in our subconscious,” Demirel said in a rare interview in 2005.

“This fear lies down in the roots of deep state. They thought, ‘We have been on the verge of collapse ... Arise people of the country! The state is collapsing and we need to spare it.’ That’s the situation.”

Turkey's former President and PM Suleyman Demirel, left, chatting with former army chief Kenan Evren, who lead the 1980 coup which toppled and jailed Demirel. They were attending the 1998 funeral for former PM Bulent Ecevit, a former leader of CHP, who was also imprisoned and banned from politics following the 1980 coup. (AP)

This political psychology has been at the core of modern Turkey’s deep state structure. In the context of resisting imperialist war, these forces served a clear and important purpose.

“Indeed, the Mudafaa-i Hukuk [Defense of Rights, which led to Turkey’s Independence War against the imperialist powers following World War I] movement was also an act of deep state,” said Demirel. “[They thought] ‘the state is collapsing, and [we need] to spare it. Because the state is not doing its own job, we need to do that.’”

Yet this state of mind came to dominate Turkey’s deep state well after the Independence War, leading it to intervene in a number of democratically-elected civilian governments since 1960s. Neither was Demirel immune to this coup mentality, when it suited his interests. In 1997, he was president during the February 28 coup, which he had foreknowledge of and supported.

Turkey’s military coups failed to bring stable governance to the country. Each coup was followed by weak coalition governments, unable to address serious economic and political issues. In this political environment, a paranoid deep state mired with a sluggish bureaucracy had overshadowed the country’s official institutions.

Likewise, the institutionally enshrined ideology of the state, Kemalism, has long legitimised the military’s political meddling.

Yet that ideology is increasingly unappealing to many of the country’s largely conservative masses. The paternalism of the Kemalist elite steered many ordinary Turks towards conservative parties, who have made much more of an effort to reach them. And coincidentally or not, all of Turkey’s coups, in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, occurred when a conservative government was in power.

Serif Mardin, an influential Turkish political scientist, was one of the first to bluntly argue publicly that Kemalism is not an ideology at all:

“After working hard and long on Kemalism, you easily understand how much an empty ideology it is. This ideology had not given to society anything good, lovely, and right,” Mardin said during a TV program in 2008, stirring controversy and triggering a wide conversation throughout the country.

However, Yavuz Arslan Argun, a prominent nationalist figure, argues the original ideas behind Kemalism remain relevant to contemporary Turkey.

“Kemalism is nothing to do with Ataturk himself. It is a corrupted version of Ataturk’s views. Kemalism might not inspire people, but the vision of Ataturk for the country still inspires people,” Argun told TRT World.

“Ataturk tried to create a new nation out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He did his best, but obviously everything he tried to do was not realised the way he wanted.”

Erdogan not alone

Under the framework of this kind of elusive system, calls for a stronger presidential system go back decades.

Some of the main advocates are those with direct experience of coups. Demirel, a seasoned conservative politician, who had led the country as a prime minister several times since the mid-1960s and became president in the early 1990s, also called for a fully presidential system. In 2006, during a conference, the old politician spoke out on the necessity of a change in the current Turkish system.

“I wish we realise a presidential system in Turkey. I feel regretful about this. The state is big, the country is big, and the people are so dynamic, but we cannot govern the country [properly]. We need to change the system,” Demirel said.

President Turgut Ozal, chatting with US President George H. Bush, advocated a fully presidential system. He thought Turkey’s system should be closer to the US system rather than the French one. (AP)

Turgut Ozal, a former conservative prime minister and president, who had been a powerful political force until the early 1990s, foresaw the presidential system as the best political outlook for Turkey. Like Erdogan, he had a legacy of the religiously-inspired Milli Gorus, the National Vision, movement, which has strongly influenced Turkish politics since the late 1960s.

Ozal was also one of the leaders who began globalising the country’s economy, liberalising its politics by expanding the rights and freedoms of citizens.

He thought that the presidential system could address the compelling issues which have haunted the country for decades. “I talk about a presidential system, but it should be a system closer to the US not to France,” Ozal said during a TV appearance in 1993. He said Turkey’s cabinet members and parliamentarians had “constant problems” and were always quarrelling.  

“There is no oversight now. Why? The government always dominates the parliament whether it is a one-party rule or a coalition government. But in the presidential system, there is an absolute separation of powers,” Ozal said.

Now Erdogan, the last heir of Turkey’s popular conservative politics, wants a presidential system with a strong separation of powers between the executive and the parliament. He wants the president to be in charge of picking up cabinet members directly, like American presidents. (Though, in the US system, presidents only nominate cabinet members pending approval from Senate, in the proposed system, Turkish presidents can appoint them). The initial signs concerning the referendum show that Erdogan is closer to making a radical change to the system than any other conservative leader has been.