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Turkey: Why a Coup, Soft or Hard is Unlikely in 2007

December 2, 2006

By Mehmet Kalyoncu

A recent Newsweek article by Zeyno Baran projects a soft coup in Turkey in 2007. Baran suggests that the conditions that paved the way to the end of the Islamist Welfare Party government on February 28, 1997 have once again been materializing, with the current AK Party’s Turkey, so that a similar soft coup by the army generals may bring an end to the Islamist-leaning government.

However, that some generals think the time has come to topple the AK Party government is a necessary, though insufficient condition for a soft coup in Turkey at this time. The differences between the former Islamist Refah of the 1990’s and the conservative democratic AK Party, the socio-economic and political contexts in which they govern, and the mentality change within the Turkish military since the Refah years all hinder the possibility of a soft coup in 2007.

Differences between the Refah (Welfare) and the AK Party

The differences between Necmettin Erbakan’s old Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party and Erdogan’s conservative democrat AK Party rule out the possibility of public acquiescence with a deja-vu soft coup. Both domestic and especially the foreign observers of Turkey view the AK Party simply as another, yet mildly, Islamist political party due to the political backgrounds of its key officials. The fact that Prime Minister Erdogan, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gul and the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly were all close aides to the Refah leader as recently as a decade ago hinders the observer’s ability to view the AK Party as different from the Islamist party whose term in the office was ended by a soft military coup.

Even if the key officials in both parties are in some case the same, what both parties mean to the general public in Turkey is strikingly different. Different not only due to the latter party’s popularity in the public mind, with its service-oriented political program and unprecedented Western leanings, but also to what it means within the context of political transformation in Turkey today.

The Refah Party represented the radical Islamist segments of the society vis-a-vis the laic state, and as such was very much disliked by the secular elite and by the majority, moderate Muslims. The elite disliked Erbakan’s Refah Party because of just about everything it had stood for. It was viewed as an open threat to Turkey’s secular way of life as envisioned by Ataturk in 1922.

Similarly, the majority moderate Muslims were irritated by the Refah due to its continuous confrontation with the secular state, which thus led to restrictions on practicing Islamic rituals in public as a result of such confrontations. In addition to the tensions that Refah caused domestically, Erbakan’s immediate pursuit of alliances with radical Islamist governments internationally, such as Iran and Libya, convinced the public that the Refah could be nothing but a problem for Turkey in the years to come. Therefore, the 1997 soft coup by the generals against the Islamist Refah government was not something that the general public did not long for, let alone not expect.

The AK Party, however, is not simply a moderated version of the Islamist Refah, but an outcome of the Turkish public’s reaction to the previous political rot in Turkey. On November 3, 2002, the main motivation of the Turkish public was to vote out the traditionally failing political parties such as ANAP, DYP, REFAH, DSP, and CHP.

The AK Party was simply voted in as a natural outcome of such a primary motivation. The fact that the Genc Party of Cem Uzan, whose record of corruption was no secret to the public, received unexpectedly high vote prove the public quest for a major change among the political actors in Turkey.

The diversity of the AK Party deputies also suggests that it is a sort of dissident movement, which reacts to the traditional way of politics in the country. The Party includes members not only from the former Islamist Refah Party but also from the leftist parties such as DSP and CHP, as well as from the center parties such as ANAP and DYP.

This very diversity of the AK Party marks yet another major difference from the Refah Party: the AK Party seems to be an inclusive party, which seeks to unite different political segments around the common motivation of service and continuing the Westernization project. On the contrary, the Refah was an exclusive party, which widened the secular vs. non-secular drift, and faltered Turkey’s Westernization project during its short term in office in 1997.

TESEV: “No Islamist Threat in Turkey”

On the issue of the surge of political Islam in Turkey, outside observers often fail to recognize, or do not want to recognize, the difference between Islamism and religiosity. As such, they tend to confuse the increase of religiosity with the surge of Islamism, though the two are completely different concepts.

While Islamism was a general attribute of the Refah Party, religiosity is that of the AK Party. Refah’s main political instrument to garner public support was Islamism. Refah successfully used it to appeal to the conservative public segments and create a front against the secular state elite, so much so that on many occasions Erbakan and key party officials did not hesitate to warn the voters of betraying their faith by not voting for the Refah Party.

At the same time, however, many key officials from Refah were frequently criticized for not being piously observant of Islam, and for instigating the secular state institution to be harsher on practicing Muslims.

The AK Party, however, seems to have religious politicians at the key positions, and to try to avoid all sort of confrontations with the secular state institutions on the basis of religious matters. The most notable example of such effort is the acquiescence of the ruling AK Party with the headscarf ban in public spaces, even though a majority of the party’s constituency consists of females with headscarfs.

According to the recent survey conducted by the TESEV (Turkish Economic and Social Research Foundation), the majority of the Turkish public think that there is not an Islamist threat in Turkey. They believe there is rather increased religiosity that manifests itself in increased number of mosque attendants.

Nevertheless, the public does not view piety as contradictory to their Western way of life and democratic values. On the contrary, they view the freedom of expression and practice of Islam as consolidation of democracy in Turkey in its true essence.

No Military Antichrist to the AK Party

The Chief of Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, General Yasar Buyukanit is likely to be the foremost opponent of any sort of anti-democratic military reaction to the civilian administration in Turkey. Prior to General Buyukanit’s succession of General Ozkok as the Chief of Staff, certain media outlets and ultra-secular circles sought to portray Gen. Buyukanit as the antichrist to the AK Party.

In other words, these circles sought to have him carry out such a function to eventually force the AK Party government out of the office. However, he has so far proven almost the complete opposite of what such critics had projected, with his strict adherence to the democratic norms of military-civilian relations.

Gen. Buyukanit avoided polemics that might stir up animosities between the military and the AK Party government, and he continued his support for the government’s reforms for EU accession. In so doing, the Chief of Staff has indicated that the democratic changes in the military’s attitude toward the civilian administration were not unique to his predecessor, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, but that the army has undergone a major mentality change in terms of military-civilian relations.

From this point on, some generals’ breach of the new democratic norms would threaten Gen. Buyukanit’s credibility and grip on his team more that it would the civilian administration.


Religiosity, in contrast to Islamism is running at an all-time high in Turkey nowadays. Given public opinion, it seems likely that trends toward religious observance will not be declining anytime soon.

The failure to distinguish between religiosity and Islamism, as it has been manifested politically in the past, however, causes inaccurate interpretation of political developments in Turkey. In 1997, the ruling Refah government was militantly Islamist, and the public was relatively much less religious; in 2006, the ruling AK Party government is relatively much less Islamist, and the public is more religious.

In addition to that, the Turkish military is more democratic in terms of military-civilian relations. Given the differences between the Refah and the AK Parties, the recent mentality transformation within the Turkish military, and the way Turkish public view the current government, it is highly unlikely for what happened in 1997 to be repeated, one decade later.

The author is a Turkish scholar and political analyst for Zaman USA.

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