The anti-government demos sweeping Turkey have sent thousands of angry protesters into the streets, facing off against tear-gas firing riot police. It’s the worst unrest to rock Turkey in years, but the country’s once all-powerful army is nowhere to be seen.
In fact, it marks the first time in Turkey’s modern history that the military, responsible for four coups in the last 50 years, has not intervened in a major political crisis.
Observers say the deafening silence from the army is actually a sign of Turkey’s growing democratic maturity. So is the fact that police have been firing rubber bullets, not real bullets to quell protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
“In my parents’ time, none of this would have been possible,” said history teacher Mehmet, 28, at a protest in Istanbul. “Turkey has changed and the army doesn’t interfere anymore. Now, we no longer risk being shot at, and we’re making the most of it.”
The military, the self-declared defenders of the secular state founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, has a bloody track record of acting against governments it felt had lost control or were threatening the country’s laical values.
But the once all-mighty generals have been steadily sidelined since Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.
The combative premier, who protesters say is forcing Islamic conservative reforms on the country, has used the courts to silence military critics, with hundreds of officers jailed for plotting to overthrow the government, observers say.
So when tens of thousands of anti-Erdogan protesters fought running battles with police in Istanbul’s Taksim Square this week in one of the biggest clashes yet in the demos, soldiers stayed in their barracks.
“That the police is now handling the crisis in Taksim (Square), not the army, is the result of the political de-legitimisation of the military undertaken by the AKP,” said Jean-Francois Perouse, director of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (IFEA) in Istanbul.
“The strategy to penetrate the police with conservatives began well before 2002,” he added.
The Turkish army overthrew governments in 1960, 1971 and in 1980, when general Kenan Evren rewrote the constitution to make it a legal right of the army to overthrow a government.
In 1997, the military pressured an Islamic-leaning prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, into stepping down. Erbakan was Erdogan’s mentor.
With the army firmly in control, Erdogan, Istanbul mayor at the time, was sentenced to four months in prison for quoting a poem during a party rally which included the line: “The mosques are our barracks, the minarets our bayonets, the domes our helmets and the believers our soldiers”.
The experience hardened his aversion for the pro-secular military and he wasted no time diluting its influence when he became premier, analysts say.
He encouraged the appointments of AKP-friendly generals, while scores of military figures were put on trial.
In one high-profile trial, now in its fourth year, 275 suspects — including top military figures, lawyers, academics and journalists — stand accused of instigating an uprising against the AKP.
They are said to be linked to a shadowy network of ultranationalists trying to seize control in Turkey, known as “Ergenekon”.
In another case, more than 300 active and retired army officers, including three former generals, received prison sentences of up to 20 years last year after a court ruled that a military exercise dubbed “Sledgehammer” in 2003 was an undercover coup plot.
Pro-government groups see the trials as steps toward democracy that will end a tradition of political interference in Turkey.
But supporters of Ataturk’s secular legacy say the cases are a “revenge” on circles opposing Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning government.
Erdogan himself has compared the current political turmoil to the crisis he faced in April 2007, when the army publicly condemned his plans to have longtime ally Abdullah Gul, who co-founded the AKP along with Erdogan, run for president.
Then, tens of thousands of supporters of Ataturk’s secular principles took to the streets to protest and Erdogan’s government was expected, like other administrations before it, to bend to the will of the generals.
But Erdogan staved off the challenge and Gul was elected president.
“Today we are in the same situation as April 27, 2007,” a defiant Erdogan told AKP supporters last week, suggesting he would stare down this challenge too.