Following its failure to prevent the election of Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s president, the Turkish military is now regrouping and preparing for the next battle in what is likely to be a long campaign to preserve the ideological legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923 and whose core principles, such as secularism and territorial integrity, are enshrined in the current Turkish constitution.
The Turkish parliament finally elected Gul as president on August 28, four months after the military intervened to block his first attempt and force the government to call an early general election. In the third round of voting Gul secured the support of 339 of the 550 members of parliament, well past the 267 required. However, in a sign of their displeasure at his appointment, all of the Turkish high command boycotted his swearing-in ceremony (Milliyet, Zaman, August 29). When the military hosted a reception in Ankara on August 30 to mark Victory Day in the Turkish War of Independence, it refused to invited Gul’s headscarfed wife. General Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS), broke with tradition by failing to accompany Gul to his car at the end of the reception (Hurriyet, Radikal, August 31). Perhaps more significantly, in speeches at ceremonies at other military facilities across the country, several officers warned that they were committed to protecting secularism — at the cost of their lives, if necessary (Milliyet, August 31).
There is an awareness in the TGS that Gul’s election as president was a defeat and that the military’s failure to prevent it has damaged its public prestige. But the military’s attention is now likely to shift away from the presidency and back to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The TGS is bracing itself to respond if it believes Ataturk’s values are under threat.
On September 2, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan read out his new government’s program in parliament. But the program contained a series of vague declarations of intent rather than any specific proposals (Radikal, September 3). Once the government has received its vote of confidence on September 5, parliament will go into recess until the end of the month, further reducing the possibility of an immediate confrontation between the AKP and the TGS.
Even though it has lost the battle over the presidency, the TGS will now focus on the much more important issue of the AKP’s plans for a new constitution to replace the one introduced in 1982 during a period of military rule. For the last few months a group of AKP deputies and legal experts have been working on the draft of the new constitution. In late July, one of the group’s members, a professor of constitutional law and AKP member of parliament called Zafer Uskul, provoked a furious reaction from Turkish secularists when he announced that he was opposed to including a commitment to Ataturk’s principles in the constitution (Milliyet, July 30).
Uskul’s statements were later disowned by the AKP, which described them as merely an expression of personal opinion (NTV, July 30). However, the text of the new constitution has yet to be made public, amid numerous press reports of serious disagreements among the experts responsible for drafting it.
On September 3, AKP Deputy Chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat held a press conference to announce that the group had completed an initial draft, which he described as a “civilian constitution prepared by the people” (CNNTurk, September 3). But he refused to share the draft text with the Turkish people, merely promising that it would be made public within the next week.
One of the main issues of contention is an article in the current constitution that makes religious education compulsory in all schools. The article was introduced by the military junta that drafted the constitution in an attempt to create an ideological bulwark against communism. In practice, even though Turkey is theoretically a secular state, the provisions in the constitution have been used to teach Sunni Islam, which has infuriated Turkey’s 10 million-strong Alevi community.
Few in the TGS expect the AKP to issue a direct challenge by removing the references to Ataturk from the new draft constitution. However, there is concern that hardliners within the AKP may try to present themselves as liberals by omitting the article on compulsory religious education while including provisions that would ease restrictions on the teaching of religion outside the school system. This could weaken the state’s control over how religion is taught and could result in the inculcation of a hard-line interpretation of Islam.