Modern Turkey was founded in the early 1920s by Kemal Ataturk, a military leader who liberated the country from a combined British, French, Italian and Greek occupation. This took place after Turkish capitulation at the end of World War I.
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The new republic was strictly secular and developed strong democratic institutions. Kemal Ataturk was its uncontested leader until his death in 1938.
Modern Turkey was patterned on the then-European nation states, with their centralized administration, state-religion separation and one official language. As in the French and Italian models, there was no protection for ethnic minorities.
The system thus created was called “Kemalism.” The Turkish military played an important role in protecting its constitutional foundations, particularly the state’s secular and unitary character. In the past, the army has intervened a number of times, often in the form of coup d’état, to uphold Kemalism when it was threatened. It stopped short, however, of establishing a military dictatorship.
The now ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was formed in 2001; it had a moderately Islamist character but fit into Turkey’s constitutional framework. Co-founded by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the party now holds a majority in parliament and Mr. Erdogan is president. During the past decade of rule by the AKP, Kemalism has been largely abandoned, secular principles weakened and the power of the president strengthened. Also, political role of the armed forces has been limited – in part due to pressure from the European Union during the negotiations on Turkey’s accession.
There were constant rumors that a military coup might take place
Many in Turkey and abroad are concerned that the country is changed from a liberal democracy into an Islamist state that vests too much power in the presidency. Although the political clout of the army has dissipated in recent years and the AKP government has replaced many of its commanders, there were constant rumors that a military coup might take place again in defense of the Kemalist principles.
President Erdogan’s recent proposal to offer Turkish citizenship to Syrian refugees may have been seen by parts of the army as final provocation: Kemalism is centered around the values of Turkish ethnicity.
A military coup was indeed attempted. The government apparently was prepared for it and the coup failed. The army’s top brass did not support the attempt while the government succeeded in mobilizing people on the streets against the coup. President Erdogan’s retaliation has followed. Regimes that fend off coups usually derive new strength from it and further consolidate their power. Some 3,000 members of the Turkish armed forces have already been detained and more than 2,000 officials in the judiciary system have been dismissed.
Foreign governments, including the United States, have rushed to express their support of the duly elected government.
Turkey is not on the brink of abandoning its parliamentary system. After the failed coup, however, the authorities may introduce even harsher measures against the “non-parliamentary” opposition and stronger controls of the judiciary. It may also grasp the opportunity to press for further constitutional changes to enhance the position of the president.