Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 31

The Turkish military is expected to use the opportunity provided by the National Security Council (NSC) meeting on Thursday, February 21, to issue a strongly worded warning to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government over its attempts to lift the headscarf ban in universities (Anka, February 18).

On February 9, supported by the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the AKP amended two articles of the Turkish Constitution to try to create the legal framework for lifting the headscarf ban (see EDM, February 11). The amendments have yet to be ratified by President Abdullah Gul. Sources close to Gul have indicated that they do not expect ratification before the NSC meeting.

NSC meetings are chaired by the president. Prior to the AKP coming to power in November 2002, the meetings were held once a month and were one of the main platforms on which the Turkish General Staff (TGS) would apply pressure to the civilian government to ensure that its policies remained within what the military regarded as acceptable parameters. Although civilian governments often failed to implement all of the recommendations presented by the military at NSC meetings, no government was ever bold enough to introduce policies that directly contradicted them.

Traditionally, the NSC was merely one of a number of instruments used by the TGS to shape government policy. Others included military membership in state institutions and committees, public expressions of concern about specific policy issues, and private meetings between military commanders and politicians and high-ranking bureaucrats.

However, reforms introduced in July 2003 reduced the frequency of NSC meetings to once every two months, making it much more difficult for the TGS to use them as a means of applying sustained pressure to the government. Other reforms removed representatives of the TGS from most non-military state bodies. Since the AKP came to power, the number of private meetings between military commanders and high-ranking members of the government and bureaucracy has declined considerably, thus robbing the TGS of a system of multiple pressure points. However, the refusal of either the AKP or the Turkish electorate to heed the warning issued by the TGS in April 2007, when it implicitly threatened to topple the government if it insisted on appointing Gul to the presidency (see EDM, January 31), has made the military high command reluctant to attempt to apply pressure to the AKP by issuing public statements. At the moment, apart from the NSC, the main instrument through which the military is able to apply pressure to the AKP is through Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit’s separate weekly meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Gul.

The military has made no secret of its opposition to the lifting of the headscarf ban. In fact, on January 30, Buyukanit described any public comment he might make on the subject as being “nothing more than restating the obvious” (NTV, CNNTurk, January 30). Nevertheless, even if he is reluctant to do so publicly, it is fair to assume that he has been consistently “restating the obvious” in his weekly meetings with Erdogan and Gul.

As a result, reports that TGS will issue a warning to the government on February 21 appear to have been deliberately leaked to the Turkish media as an indication that the military is now preparing to increase the pressure on the AKP over the headscarf. Any warning issued at the NSC will be regarded as coming not from the chief of staff, but from the military as an institution. The Anka News Agency reported that, before going to the Presidential Palace for the NSC meeting, the leading commanders will first meet at the TGS Headquarters in order to finalize the details of how they will deliver the warning to the government (Anka, February 18). However, by waiting until the NSC meeting, the military will now be able to present its warning as supporting the many statements and protests from other Turkish secularists, rather than – as has often been the case in the past – taking the lead and expecting others to follow.

Whether or not the warning will have any effect remains unclear. Even AKP officials freely admit that, in themselves, the constitutional amendments will not result in the headscarf ban being lifted, although they believe that they will create the legal foundation on which to base changes to university regulations to lift the ban. However, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has already announced that, as soon as the amendments are ratified, it will apply to the Constitutional Court for them to be annulled. If the court opposes the amendments or any subsequent attempts to amend university regulations, it is possible be that, faced with opposition from the judiciary, the military and secularist NGOs, the AKP may back down.

Privately, some AKP members of parliament admit that they are more concerned with being seen to be doing something about the headscarf ban than actually abolish it. Although they still supported the AKP in the July 2007 general election, many conservative voters were deeply frustrated by the party’s failure to lift the headscarf ban during its first term in power. Although it won 46.6% of the vote in July 2007, up from 34.3% in November 2002, the AKP is already looking ahead to the local elections of March 2009 and fears that anything else except another increase in its vote will be regarded as a failure. But, if it fails to lift the headscarf ban, it could risk becoming a victim of its own success. Pleading extenuating circumstances when newly elected with one-third of the vote and with the TGS still casting a long shadow over Turkish politics is one thing. Failing to deliver on the expectations of its voters when it has won nearly half of the vote, and when it is now the military which is being cautious, is quite another.