Despite its failed attempt last year to prevent Abdullah Gul from being appointed president, the Turkish military remains the most trusted institution in the country, according to the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll conducted for the European Commission.
On April 27, 2007, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) posted a statement on its website implicitly threatening to topple the government if the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushed ahead with its plans to appoint the then-foreign minister Abdullah Gil as the country’s president. The TGS feared that, with Gul in the presidential palace, the AKP would finally have sufficient control over the state apparatus to implement what the military suspected was its long-term radical Islamist agenda. The impasse forced the AKP to call an early general election for July 22, 2007. In the run-up to the polls, AKP supporters presented the election in almost Manichean terms as a choice between the democratic government and an undemocratic intervention in the political process by the TGS. The result was a landslide victory for the AKP, which won 46.6% of the popular vote and 341 seats in Turkey’s 550-member unicameral parliament.
For the fiercely proud Turkish military, which has long regarded itself as the essence of the Turkish nation, its guide, as well as its guardian, the electorate’s refusal to heed its warning was a shock and a humiliation. However, according to results from the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, which were made public at the beginning of February, even if they do not like it telling them what to do, the vast majority of Turkey still respects the military as an institution. A total of 84% of Turks named the military as the most trusted institution in the country, compared with just 63% who had confidence in the government (www.avrupa.info.tr).
In fact, the prestige of the Turkish military has always varied, rising in times of crisis or perceived threat and falling during periods of stability and security. The survey was conducted between September 24 and October 21, 2007, a period that coincided with a sudden spike in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which led to the deaths of nearly 40 soldiers in less than one month. There is little doubt that, following the public sympathy caused by the PKK attacks, the Turkish military’s public prestige has been further strengthened by the perceived success of its air raids against PKK positions in northern Iraq, starting in December 2007.
It is also likely that the timing of the survey is one of the reasons that 77% of the Turks questioned named terrorism as a major problem in the country, compared with unemployment at 57% and economic conditions at 23%.
In contrast with the attitudes towards the military, the Eurobarometer survey suggested Turkish perceptions of the EU were continuing to deteriorate. Only 49% of those questioned thought that EU membership would be a “good thing” for Turkey, down from 54% in the previous survey in spring 2007. In 2003-2004 support for EU membership in Turkey was running at over 70%.
The increase in hostility toward the EU appears to be part of a recent rise in nationalism and xenophobia. According to a survey conducted by the Economic and Social Research Center of Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, 44% of Turks do not trust foreigners very much, and 29% do not trust them at all. There was a similar reluctance to tolerate those living in Turkey who did not share mainstream Turkish values. A total of 88% of those question said that they would not want a homosexual as a neighbor, while 63% said that they would not want an atheist to move in next door. A further 65% said that they would not want to live next to an unmarried couple and 30% said that they would not want a neighbor who did not fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The survey demonstrated that Turkey remains a deeply conservative society. A total of 89% of those questioned said that they fasted during Ramadan, 47% said that they prayed every day and 63% of males said that they went to the mosque at least once a week. Conservatism also characterized attitudes toward family life. A total of 73% of those questioned said that the man should be the head of the household and 73% that men made better business executives than women. A total of 62% believed that women should obey their husbands, 19% that some women deserved to be beaten by their husbands, and 10% that men should be allowed to take more than one wife (Radikal, February 8).
The prevalence of conservative attitudes toward female participation in public life was reinforced by the results of two other recent surveys. Turkey has long had one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce of any OECD country. In recent years, the rate has even declined as a result of the fallout from the economic crisis of 2001, when a disproportionately large number of females were laid off, and increasing social conservatism. A survey by the Turkish Confederation of Employers’ Unions (TISK) found that 60% of females in the 15-29 age group, and 66% of females in the 25-29 age group, were neither employed nor engaged in full-time education (Radikal, February 6).
In a survey by two members of the teaching staff at Istanbul’s Bosphorus and Sabanci Universities, when asked why they had not continued their studies after completing compulsory elementary education, 32.2% of women said that it was because their families had not given them permission, compared with 20.1% who said that their families were too poor, 14.6% who had they had needed to work to support their families, 13.5% because there was no secondary school in the vicinity, and only 13.7% who said that they did not like school (Radikal, February 7).