The failed coup d’état of 2016 was a major turning point in civil-military relations in Turkey. The unprecedented scenes of public defiance against the military, generally believed to be a professional and revered institution in Turkey, prompted a deeper look into the country’s civil-military relations since 2002. Given that Pakistan and Turkey enjoy a great deal of similarities in terms of intermittent military interventions, it is crucial to identify the root causes for military supremacy in both the countries and the lessons that Pakistan can draw from the recent development in civil-military relations in Turkey.
Roots of military domination
Historically, while Turkey and Pakistan have frequently experienced martial law, the military institutions in the two countries have played contrasting roles in reconciling Islam, secularism, and democracy.
The military has been a major political actor in Turkey since its inception and the armed forces consider themselves to be the custodians of Kemalist secularism. The Pakistani army emerged as a dominant player in domestic politics due to erstwhile legacies of the colonial era and incessant political instability.
Mounting tensions with India after partition lead the Pakistani leadership to invest extensively in the defence of the nation, at the expense of other sectors, which allowed the military to gain undue influence and power. Distinctly religious undertones inched their way into the armed forces only during Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule.
Early on, in Pakistan, the military encroached upon the political vacuum left in the aftermath of independence and assumed positions of political significance. In 1958, after President Mirza suspended the 1956 constitution and implemented martial law to forestall an electoral defeat in the upcoming 1959 elections, he was promptly deposed by Gen. Ayub Khan. The notion of the India-centric security threat also boosted the military’s power.
The armed forces in Turkey have usually justified their numerous interventions into domestic politics in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 on the grounds of protection of democracy and secularism. The majority of the Turkish population saw a unique tutelary role for the military in the country and consequently, these military takeovers saw little opposition from the public. Thus, taking into consideration the popularity of the armed forces, the civilian leadership in Turkey was hesitant when it came to reining in the military’s power.
Similarly, the citizenry, at large, in Pakistan perceives martial law as a stable alternative to the temporary and unstable coalition governments. Even when civilian governments are in power, the military’s widespread influence is always lurking in the background. Thus, a prima facie observation of societal perception regarding military intervention in the two countries points to similar national trajectories.
Ergenekon Trials: Turning point
However, a cursory glance at the Eurobarometer surveys indicates a sharp decline in popular support for the military amongst Turkey’s population since 2008. The primary reason for this mistrust can be found in the Ergenekon trials, a series of corruption scandals starting in 2008, where senior military officials allegedly tried to foment chaos and instability to stage a coup and justify military intervention. The Ergenekon trials seriously undermined public faith in the military and strengthened the government’s power vis-à-vis the armed forces.
This factor explains the public defiance against the military coup in support of President Erdogan on the night of the coup on 15th of July, 2016. Erdogan and Turkey’s ruling “Justice and Development Party” (AKP) were able to amass large swathes of the population against the coup due to support from religious conservatives. In addition, the AKP had managed to consolidate its support base using economic stability and progress in regions like the Anatolian plateau, which had hitherto been untouched by developmental policies. Erdogan had presided over a decade of economic growth and hence, even his staunch opponents preferred his majoritarian rule to a military coup.
In contrast to the Ergenekon trials, Pakistan’s judiciary has always legitimised military rule, often invoking the “doctrine of necessity” to validate unconstitutional martial law. High-ranking generals have never been held accountable in a court of law and inquiries like the Hamoodur Rahman commission report have not been made public. A recent Supreme Court ruling that disqualified incumbent PM Nawaz Sharif is being interpreted as a soft coup by some.
The Pakistani Takeaway
An important takeaway from the Turkish coup for Pakistan is that economic and developmental stagnation almost certainly pave way for a military takeover, as in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation policies which failed to bear fruit due to inadequacies on part of the civilian administration. Allegations of fraud, rigging of elections, and floods in 1977 contributed to the political turmoil. Soon after, Bhutto had the opposition leaders arrested, martial law was imposed in major cities and Bhutto himself was deposed by General Zia-ul-Haq. While Bhutto did enjoy a certain degree of popular appeal amongst the masses, his ouster was not met with public outrage indicating a wane in public support for civilian leadership.
Continuous political strife has hampered development in Pakistan and the only mega projects, like the Gwadar port and Mangla Dam, to have seen operationalisation, were completed during military rule.
Nevertheless, military rule in Pakistan has only brought temporary respite to the public as martial law tends to destroy the democratic and plural fabric of the country and policies implemented by the military tend to fail abysmally. This was evident by the mass disillusionment with the military regime leading to the 1971 war during Yahya Khan’s rule and Musharaff’s decline in popularity by 2007.
In terms of structural reforms to reclaim power back from the clutches of the military, the government of Turkey enacted a constitutional amendment to restrain the National Security Council (MGK), comprising of Turkish military officials, which wielded a heavy amount of influence over the nominally civilian government. In contrast, a constitutional structure of civilian supremacy over the military exists only on paper in Pakistan with the Pakistani army being the de facto kingmaker of policies. A system of political patronage has helped the military cultivate only those politicians who have demonstrated a sense of subservience to the army.
Apart from domestic parameters, political pressure from the European Union too played a role in weakening the military’s power in Turkey that culminated in the failed putsch of July 2016.
The membership negotiations initiated by the EU with Turkey required statutory reforms and civilian supervision over military influence. To this end, Turkey initiated reforms to ensure parliamentary oversight over military budgets, enacted changes to the composition and role of the National Security Council and passed an amendment allowing military officials to be tried in civilian courts. With Pakistan, the United States, whose primary concern at the time was to counter and contain communism, abetted military rule to further its own political agenda. In the case of Turkey too, the US only issued a belated statement condemning the attempted coup after Erdogan and his party had emerged as the clear winners as, previously, Washington has made it clear that democratic consolidation is not an essential prerequisite for NATO membership
The ineffectiveness of the democratic structure and civil society organisations in Pakistan along with a complex nexus between the Pakistani army, the intelligence agencies and a network of cross-border militants have had an adverse impact on civil-military relations in Pakistan. Civilian oversight of the military or power to prevent a military takeover is negligible in Pakistan. The personal popularity of the politicians in Pakistan pales in comparison to that of the Army chiefs, like General Raheel Sharif. The popular perception of the army as a selfless and patriotic institution above petty political rivalries is deeply embedded in the national psyche. The AKP and Erdogan, on the other hand, have managed to consistently increase their vote share and broaden their mass appeal using a well-articulated media campaign.
While the military in Turkey exercised control over military spending and the military’s pension fund, the Pakistani army has, over time, evolved into a praetorian military with self-serving business and corporate interests. Thus several retired military officers are appointed to high-ranking positions in the civilian administration further extending the economic tentacles of the army. The army’s policy of concentrated recruitment from Punjab entails that one region of the country is overwhelmingly represented at the expense of other regions.
Replacing Authoritarianism with Authoritarianism
Needless to say, Erdogan’s populism and borderline authoritarianism have played a significant part in keeping the Turkish military in check. Till a leader of equal stature and mass appeal rises to prominence in Pakistan, it would be difficult to rectify the skewed balance in civil-military relations. It is also crucial to note a counter-narrative regarding a hypothetical scenario in the event of a triumphant Turkish coup in 2016. Had the military been successful in imposing martial law, it would be safe to assume that they, too, would have carried out a political witch hunt by prosecuting Erdogan’s allies and destroying whatever semblance of civilian leadership had been nurtured in Turkey in the past decade.
A shift in power away from the unelected military institutions signals a positive development in civil-military relations in Turkey.
Despite profound ideological and religious fractures, the political opposition in Turkey – in a rare display of unity and statesmanship – joined hands to denounce the assault on democracy by the Turkish military in 2016. Turkey may still be sliding towards authoritarianism, with excessive power concentrated in the hands of the President, but it has managed to throw off the yoke of military rule, for the time being, and is by consequence, a step closer to securing democratic capability.
On similar lines, Pakistan has managed to take some timid strides towards democratic consolidation as it witnessed its first civilian transfer of power after the completion of an election term in 2013. Last year, a report in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper by Cyril Almeida raked up a storm when it divulged that the government was trying to contain the military’s influence signifying that certain sections of the media may be willing to play a bold role in questioning the military’s legitimacy in domestic politics.
The first step towards democratic consolidation in Pakistan would be to marginalise military influence by cultivating strong civilian authority and reinstating popular support for civilian institutions. Thus, Pakistan has to go the “Turkish” way of ousting military interference, albeit using a strongman, before it can hope to consolidate democracy by eliminating other strands of authoritarianism.
The author is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).