The Turkish takeover

There is no doubt that extremsit forces are trying to destroy the foundations of Turkey's democratic system. It is to prevent this from happening that the worried Turkish military leaders finally stepped in and took control. They did so with great reluctance and only in the face of mounting political and economic chaos. The West watches the quiet military takeover and the suspension of democracy with great sadness and concern. But, given the high esteem in which Turkey's military is held and its past restraint in political crises, it can be reasonably assumed that the takeover of power is temporary adn that the generals truly intend to carry out their promise to put Turkish democracy on a more solid footing.

For months Army leaders have been warning the political leadership to bury personal antagonisms and come to grips with the mounting challenge of terrorism. The toll of violence has risen to alarming proportions -- from 82 killings in 1976 to 1,200 in 1979 and to nearly 2,000 already this year, including a member of Parliament, a highly respected former prime minister, and a labor leader. Both rightists and Marxist leftists are perpetrating the killings, each side seeking to demolish the present system and replace it with an authoritarian regime to its liking.

Besides the assassinations and terrorism is the threat posed to the fabric of Turkish society by the possibility of an Islamic revival. Turks have been reared for more than 50 years on the secular reforms instituted by Kemal Ataturk and most believe that secularism is too firmly implanted to be dislodge now. But the winds of religious fundamentalism that toppled the monarchy in Iran are beginning to blow in Turkey. Especially worrisome is the feud between the minority Alevis (a Shia Muslim group), who tend to align themselves with the Marxists, and the majority Sunni Muslims, who are turning to the extreme right. One long-term goal of the generals may in fact to be strengthen the political system so as to resist any movement for estabslishment of a theocratic state.

The tragedy of the situation is that things need not have gone this far if the nation's two major political leaders had submerged their longtime rivalry in the interest of saving the state. Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel and oppostion leader Bulent Ecevit were unable to agree on a means of combating the wave of terrorism. On holding elections, or even on electing new president. A little more statesmanship could have averted the coup.

After restoring civil order, the challenge for Gen. Kenan Evren, the armed forces commander, and his military colleagues will be to move as swiftly as possible toward a restoration of civilian rule. Free elections are promised after changes in the Constitution, the election law, and the law governing parties -- changes which presumably would make it easier for a party to gain a majority in Parliament and thereby govern more effectively than has been possible in recent years. In any case, the Army, now the most disciplined and respected institution in Turkey, must know the pitfalls of holding on to power too long, not least of which would be the danger of becoming politicized and polarized and undermining its cohesiveness.

It must also be recognized that Turkey risks becoming the target of strong criticism from the West and perhaps losing billions of dollars in Western aid if there are not steady signs of a return to democracy. For the moment the military probably has the West's sympathy and support for, given Turkey's crucial strategic importance as the southern flank of the NATO alliance, the growing political chaos has been a source of extreme concern. West Germany and others have poured huge sums into Turkey in order to avert economic collapse but , unless the violence can be stemmed and political stability restored, the aid will count for little. So the military coup probably is seen as a regrettable move but tolerable under the circumstances. The hope that the Turkish military will be more inclined than the politicians to facilitate Greece's reentry into NATO is no doubt added cause for a Western stance of "wait and see."

In the end, however, genuine political stability can only be achieved on the basis of the expressed will of the people. Twice before, in 1960 and 1971, the Turkish Army took over the government and subsequently returned it to the politicians. It would be a grievous setback for Turkish democracy and the Western course set by Ataturk if this time around the military abandoned its traditional restraint.

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