Mesut Yilmaz’s vote of confidence (281 to 256) in the Turkish parliament on July 12 was marred by brawls and fist-fights. He described his elevation to the premier’s post as a return to ‘traditional Turkish politics.’ Indeed!
When he had announced the formation of his government on June 30 - twelve days after the resignation of prime minister and Refah Party chief Necmettin Erbakan, a festive mood gripped Turkish secular circles and western capitals. The generals, traditional guarantors of ‘Kemalist principles’, have once again intervened in politics to safeguard Turkish secularism - this time against Erbakan’s mild efforts to introduce Islamic symbolism into public life, and to develop links with Muslim countries, including Islamic Iran.
But Turkish secularism, pretentiously dressed up as a political ideology, is in reality little more than a cynical ploy by the army to maintain its grip on power and to serve the foreign policy interests of its western allies, while using corrupt civilian politicians as a facade. Certainly, eversince Mustafa Kemal, some 70 years ago, raised the triple aspirations of monopolizing power, fighting Islam and aping the west to the level of doctrine - dubbed ‘Kemalist principles’ - the military has ruled Turkey either directly or indirectly.
Turkey was first declared a republic on October 29, 1923, with Mustafa Kemal as president. The constitution of April 20, 1924 provided for an elected parliament which was the repository of sovereign power. Executive power was to be exercised by the president and a cabinet chosen by him. But Kemal continued to rule as a dictator.
His next step was to demolish religious structures already weakened by the removal of the Caliph (Sultan). In a series of edicts the ministry of religious affairs was abolished, the tariqas disbanded, religious property sequestered and religious instruction forbidden. Then came the so-called ‘reforms’ which abolished the fez and the Arabic alphabet, replacing them with hat and the Latin alphabet. Next followed the adoption of new civil and criminal codes of law adapted from Europe.
But it was not until 1928 that Islam itself was disestablished, and the constitution amended to make Turkey a secular State. Ten years later, Ataturk (the ‘Father of Turkey’ as Kemal was called) died of alcoholism at the age of 57.
To preserve a fundamentally dictatorial system dominated by the military and present it as democratic, Kemal’s successors in uniform had to put him on a pedestal and sanctify his fiendish legacy as a national heritage worthy of protection by the State. The next step was to install themselves as the guarantors of the legacy, and put in place the necessary legislation to prohibit any questioning of its sanctity or that of Mustafa Kemal.
The generals were aided in all this by the fact that the political role of the military in Turkey, as in Indonesia, is entrenched in the constitution; by the establishment of a pervasive culture of corruption designed to secure the cooperation of civilian politicians to go through the motions of operating a system controlled by the top brass; and by western support, traditionally lavished on autocrats, whether civillian or military, willing and able to deliver the goods.
But from time to time the generals find it necessary to intervene directly in politics to protect their power base - a total of three coups in the last four decades. On all three occasions (May 27, 1960, March 12, 1971 and September 11, 1980), the generals used the pretext of restoring law and order and of returning the country to Kemalist principles to seize power.
The current intervention is, for all practical purposes, another military coup. The generals have exerted maximum pressure on Erbakan to leave office, threatening to seize power if he failed to do so. When, in an attempt to thwart them, he resigned as prime minister in favour of Mrs Tansu Ciller, his coalition partner and leader of True Path Party (DYP), president Suleyman Demirel refused to call on her to form a government. Instead, he asked Yilmaz, although the Refah-DYP coalition was still viable, having a majority of seats in parliament.
Demirel and the generals then went to work - using bribes, including the promise of office and business contracts to induce enough deputies to defect to Yilmaz. Given the Turkish deputies’ predeliction to cross party lines, it came as no surprise when 12 members of Ciller’s party defected to Yilmaz, with still others signalling their readiness to do so.
Yilmaz moved quickly to please his backers: big business, the army, secular civilians and the west, especially the US. He promised to introduce strong anti-Islamic measures, including the closure of private Islamic schools, and the monitoring of charities and businesses that fund Islamic causes; a hefty programme of privatization, and closer ties with western Europe. He also promised to distance his country from those in the region that ‘promote terrorism’.
The west, including the media, have predictably come out in favour of Yilmaz. A New York Times editorial (republished in the Herald Tribune on July 8), for instance, called on the US government to support Yilmaz - describing him as a ‘firm secularist and democrat’ and the ‘least tainted’ of Turkey’s politicians.
Insisting that ‘America should support him’, the editorial made two claims - both false - to justify its backing for him. It said that he ‘has assembled a coherent parliamentary majority, a requirement for effective government his recent predecessors have lacked’ - adding that, under his leadership, Turkey will have a ‘chance to strengthen its democratic institutions.’
It is a travesty of the truth to describe someone who has colluded with the army and has used extensive bribery to achieve power and to induce defections to his party as a leader with ‘coherent’ parliamentary backing and a chance to provide effective and democratic leadership. The fact is that Yilmaz was prime minister twice before and is remembered as a weak and corrupt figure. The governments he led in 1991 and 1996 lasted five and three months respectively.
As Shouki Yilmaz, a Turkish deputy said during a television programme on July 5, the ‘movement of deputies from party to party comes as a result of bribes amounting to millions of dollars.’ Asked what he thought of Yilmaz’s government, he added: ‘This cabinet is like the son of a woman who has married seven men in a single - illegitimate.’
But Ataturk’s successors, the real power in the land, and their US backers prefer such illegitimate sons who are more likely to serve unquestioningly the business and power aspirations of the generals as well as Uncle Sam’s strategic interests.
Muslimedia - August 1-15, 1997