Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 19

Even if it doesn’t overshadow Turkey to the extent that it did a decade ago, on January 30 the Turkish military demonstrated that it still has the ability to bring the country to a halt while hanging not just on its words, but even on its silences.

Over the last 10 days, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has focused on trying to amend the Turkish constitution to lift the ban that prevents women wearing Islamic headscarves from attending university (see EDM, January 29), there has been considerable speculation in the Turkish media about if or when the staunchly secularist military would issue a warning to the government. Opinion was divided. There were those – particularly in the Islamist media – who hoped and believed that, cowed by the AKP’s landslide victory in the July 2007 general election, the military would remain silent. However, most thought that a statement was inevitable.

On January 29, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) broke with precedent by inviting the media to cover a routine meeting the following day in Ankara between Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit and the visiting Macedonian Defense Minister Lazer Elenovski. The expectation was that Buyukanit would take the opportunity to express the military’s opinion on the AKP’s attempts to lift the headscarf ban.

The meeting started at 10:20 a.m. on January 30. In addition to the print journalists in attendance, 10 nationwide television channels interrupted their programming to cover the meeting live. The nation watched as Buyukanit, whose hawkish reputation belies an often avuncular joviality, exchanged pleasantries with the considerably less effusive and slightly bewildered-looking Elenovski — who was presumably aware the media coverage was the not the result of a newfound public enthusiasm for Turkish-Macedonian defense ties.

At 10 a.m. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been due to chair an Economic Evaluation Meeting, which brings together the ministers responsible for the economy. But even Erdogan put everything on hold, postponing the opening of the meeting and joining his Cabinet colleagues to watch Buyukanit and Elenovski on television (Ankara, January 30).

After 25 minutes, when the pleasantries and expressions of goodwill had been exhausted, Buyukanit turned in his chair to face the cameras and address the issue of the headscarf ban – or, more accurately, to say that he would say nothing.

“There is nobody in any segment of Turkish society who does not know what the military thinks about the headscarf issue,” said Buyukanit. “If we say something, it will be nothing more than restating the obvious” (NTV, CNNTurk, January 30).

The nation duly returned to its business, and Erdogan opened the Economic Evaluation Meeting at 11 a.m.

Yet, however subtle the delivery, there was no doubting the content of Buyukanit’s message. Ever since he became chief of staff in August 2006, Buyukanit has repeatedly insisted that it is the duty of the Turkish armed forces not only to protect the territory of the Turkish Republic but also the nature of its regime, particularly the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish Constitution. The Turkish military never made any secret of its belief that allowing women in Islamic headscarves to study at university would be regarded as a violation of secularism.

However, the manner in which Buyukanit chose to deliver the message was new and carefully calculated. The TGS is aware that holding a press conference to express its reservations about the AKP’s attempts to lift the headscarf ban would have been regarded as interference in politics. It has also learned that posting a blunt statement on its website – similar to the one issued in April 2007 to try to prevent Abdullah Gul being appointed to the presidency – risks being counterproductive. Not only was Gul finally appointed in August 2007, but a large proportion of the Turkish electorate simply ignored the TGS’s warnings about the threat posed by the AKP to secularism by returning the party to power in the July 2007 elections with almost half of the popular vote.

Yet Buyukanit’s public refusal to restate “the obvious” will not only have reminded the AKP of the military’s opposition to the lifting of the headscarf ban but reassured secularists in the country, not least among the officer corps itself, that the high command is as committed to preserving secularism as ever. The TGS’s preference is for NGOs, the secular public, and other elements in the state apparatus to take the lead in opposing the lifting of the headscarf ban. It currently looks as if the AKP will succeed in pushing constitutional amendments to lift the headscarf ban through parliament, probably in early February. However, the amendments will inevitably be challenged in the courts. There is no doubt that secularists both inside and outside the judiciary will have interpreted Buyukanit’s subtle statement of January 30 as a reassurance that the military is supporting them.

Since its landslide election victory in July 2007, the AKP appears to have become overconfident, focusing on the half of the electorate that voted for it rather than the half that did not. Both publicly and privately, AKP officials continue to insist that the era of military interventions in politics are over. However, as Erdogan demonstrated by tuning in to the meeting between Buyukanit and Elenovski, there are still times when the AKP glances over its shoulder — and it is still the military that it fears it might see.