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A coup against coups in Turkey

Senada Sokollu, Istanbul / mzJuly 3, 2013

The Turkish government has plans to make a slight change to its laws to prevent coups. The contentious point in the constitution - Article 35 - has been used as justification by instigators of past coups.

Turkish Air Force fighters fly over a national flag during a ceremony on the Victory Day in Ankara, Turkey, in this Aug. 30, 2007 file photo. Turkish warplanes hit Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq early Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007, Turkey's military said, the first such attack since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)
Image: AP

Since 1960, there have been four military coups in Turkey that threw out elected governments. The last time a coup threatened the government in Turkey was 2007, when the military had a stand-off with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now, the government is considering a historic step: changing Article 35 of the Turkish military's internal laws. This would be an attempt to avoid future military coups by passing an amendment that would remove the possibility of the military getting involved in domestic affairs. The change in Article 35 would make the military only responsible for "threats from abroad."

Protectors of the Turkish Republic

It's been the task of the Turkish military since 1934 to "protect the Turkish Republic." Up until now, the military has considered itself responsible for external security but also for internal security as protectors of the founding principals laid down by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey's first president. These principals include, among other things, a strict separation of religion and state.

In 1980, it was the defense of these principles that was the justification when the then-Chief of Staff Menan Evren carried out a military coup to stop clashes between groups from the left and the right that bordered on civil war. The military's engagement was initially welcomed by many, but then it expanded significantly: there were 650,000 arrests, 50 executions, and 171 deaths by torture. Tens of thousands of citizens were stripped of their citizenship and forced to flee abroad.

Soldiers disperse demontrators in Ankara streets 300 meters from the parliament few days defore a acoup in this Sept. 1980 photo. The army took over the country to quell leftist-rightist street battles that were killing about a dozen people a day. . (ddp images/AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Soldiers kept demonstrators away from parliament ahead of the 1980 coupImage: AP

"When there's been a military coup, there always been a hate campaign against the elected government. They were not just carried out by the military, but with other coalition partners, with the elite," says Adem Sözüer, dean of the law faculty at the University of Istanbul.

He told Deutsche Welle that many of the conflicts between political groups or ethnic communities are provoked and programmed by Turkey's "deep state," a shadowy world that exists between the state, the police and the criminal underworld.

"The majority of the people are supposed to think that the country is in danger, and the military should save us," Sözüer said.

The agonizing article

From a legal perspective, Article 35 in its current form does not provide justification for military intervention in Turkey because it is based on the constitution, says Lami Bertan Tokuzlu, a lecturer in constitutional law at Bigli University in Istanbul.

"A military seizure of power is something which is beyond the law. It means that the existing constitution has been annulled. All power to make laws and judicial decisions is then assumed. That can't be based on a law. It's not a legal process," Tokuzlu told DW.

But Sözüer explains that Article 35 still serves to justify coup instigators.

Adem Sözüer
Adem Sözüer says Article 35 provides a "cosmetic cover" for coup instigatorsImage: Adem Sözüer

"Article 35 doesn't indicate that someone can or should carry out a coup. But you need some kind of legal justification," he says, adding that the article "is a kind of cosmetic cover" for coup instigators.

There could be coups even without this article, and changing it would only have symbolic meaning, "but for democratization and for dealing with the past, you need to take these kind of symbolic steps."

He thinks the country will need to take further steps toward democratization as well, starting with its own military, which is based upon conscription.

"A lot should be changed in military training. Young people begin their military service, and they swear to defend the republic against foreign and domestic enemies," Sözüer said. "If you've been trained like that for years and then you get to a political situation like this, you feel responsible."

From park protest to reform?

Tokuzlu thinks there is a connection between the nation-wide protest movement and the change to Article 35.

"There have been cases where military officials helped the demonstrators by, for example, handing out gas masks on the streets," he said, adding if that kind of cooperation continues, it will be a nightmare for the government.

Anti-government protesters shout slogans as they stand on barricades in Istanbul June 16, 2013. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan rallied hundreds of thousands of supporters at an Istanbul parade ground on Sunday as riot police fired teargas a few kilometres away in the city centre to disperse anti-government protesters. Riot police fired teargas into side streets around the central Taksim Square as he spoke, trying to prevent protesters from regrouping after hundreds were evicted from the adjoining Gezi Park, the centre of the demonstrations, late on Saturday. REUTERS/Serkan Senturk (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
The Gezi Park protests have been going on for over a monthImage: Reuters

"There are protests and the government is really taking a hard line against the demonstrators. This situation would be ripe for a military intervention," he said.

But the military doesn't have that intention, he says: "The military is under absolute control of the government."

Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish journalist, also believes that the protests are behind the amendment.

"It may be that the government wants to show the whole world that they are seeking to be more democratic, especially in light of events in the last few months regarding the Gezi protests," Aktar told DW.

Article 35 has been the overriding argument for instigators of military coups. "This legal stipulation should have always been banned," says Aktar.