AKP, CHP, and Taming the Paper Tiger


February 17, 2011

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Last week’s “paper tiger” polemic between Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has turned into a contest of “who’s going to win more votes by attacking the Turkish military?”

First, CHP Deputy Chairman Süheyl Batum likened the Turkish Armed Forces to a “paper tiger” for staying quiet in the face of retired generals getting arrested for allegedly planning several coups in 2003-2004 (the so-called Ergenekon-Sledgehammer-Cage allegations). Meanwhile, members of the AKP continued to present the allegations as if they’re proven by the courts.

But these statements, similar to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç’s recent “thank God we didn’t go to war with these generals” remark or his crying “they were going to assassinate me” on TV, may not impress voters. Just like the Turkish military losing prestige whenever it interferes with politics, politicians have likewise lost credibility whenever they tried to get the military involved in politics. The case of Mesut Yılmaz, who had emerged as prime minister in the aftermath of the “soft coup” of 1997 and who had lost power soon after starting a fight with General Çevik Bir (to whom Mr. Yılmaz owed his prime ministry), is revealing.

Obviously, at a time when Turkey is becoming a global actor, it is imperative for the military to subordinate itself to civilian authority. And it is also obvious that the Turkish military weakened both democracy and secularism in Turkey every time it stepped into politics as “the guardian of democracy and the secular Republic.” The 1980 military regime’s introduction of mandatory courses on religion at primary and secondary schools is a good example.

But any sensible person who is not a politician playing with paper tigers will see that, given its geographic location, Turkey needs a powerful military. The international situation has never been this uncertain and dangerous since the end of the Cold War. That so many of those dangerous locations are very close to Turkey makes the Turkish military as irreplaceable as democratic institutions. Add to that the popularity of the Turkish military’s victories in the War of Independence, Korea, Cyprus, Southeast Turkey, and Northern Iraq, we can see more clearly how self-defeating AKP and CHP’s latest efforts are.

If partisans of AKP and CHP aim to convert citizens’ presumed antipathy against the military into votes, they should see how absurd they look: If the Turkish Armed Forces are truly a paper tiger, then why are politicians – be they in power or in opposition – bother with this paper tiger instead of the country’s real problems? And why should we, the voters, turn over the country for another 4 years to those who cannot even tame a paper tiger?

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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