Tanks rumbling through the streets of Sincan, a province near Ankara, sent a clear signal recently that Turkish democracy is in a crisis. Since the formation of the Islamic center-right coalition government last June, several civilian attempts to bring it down have failed. And now the military may be about to step in to protect the secular establishment and "restore order."
Such a move would have profoundly negative consequences for Turkish democracy. An opportunity still exists to break the impasse within the Turkish constitutional system - but only if action is taken quickly. The United States, which has a stake in the outcome, must exercise its leverage.
In 1996, after months of haggling among several parties, Tansu Ciller, the leader of the True Path Party (TPP), formed a coalition with the Islamist Welfare Party (WP) - making WP leader Necmettin Erbakan prime minister and essentially giving the Islamists power in exchange for dropping their corruption charges against Ms. Ciller. Ironically, Ciller, who had campaigned as the bulwark against "the dark forces of fundamentalism," opened the door to it herself.
Given the military's historical suspicions of Mr. Erbakan's Islamist tendencies, he initially attempted to appease it by extending the US-led air patrol over northern Iraq (a policy he had strongly opposed) and increasing military salaries. He approved a previously signed defense agreement with Israel, accepted the expulsion of several Islamic officers, and recanted previous anti-Semitic statements.
Yet he also played to his electorate with prominent trips to the "rogue" Islamic states of Libya and Iran; hosted Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani in December; and pushed ahead with a gas deal and a military agreement with Iran, despite threats by the United States of an embargo against Turkey.
The military began muttering veiled threats against Erbakan last fall. In the last few weeks heavy traffic between President Suleyman Demirel's office and the generals resulted in a threat of action if the coalition was not brought down by constitutional means. The tank movement was a warning that the deadline is imminent.
An imminent coup?
The other half of the coalition has been equally problematic in the wake of a car accident in Susurluk on Nov. 3 involving a TPP member of the National Assembly, a former police chief, and a notorious criminal. There have been subsequent allegations that key members of the Turkish state were involved in international terrorism and drug smuggling. Accusations of responsibility extend all the way to the Ciller family, and the US Congress is beginning to show interest in the issue.
Such allegations are deeply worrisome to the Turkish military, which prefers "stability and order" to potentially destabilizing investigations. Yet a military coup would be much worse for Turkey. In fact, many of today's problems stem from past democratic breakdowns and the closure and reorganization of political parties that followed military interventions in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Politics became even more personalized, causing the splintering on both the left and the right that eventually allowed the Islamists to take control of the government.
The idea that the military will quickly tidy things up, restore civilian rule, and preserve the march toward democracy is false. Even shutting down the WP would not reduce its considerable electoral support.
A different message
For all its faults, the WP is the only party to address some of the vast social problems afflicting the millions of impoverished Turks uprooted by economic changes and 12 years of civil war in the southeast. If the WP were to be evicted (and then presumably banned), the Islamist politicians would be martyrized, and polarization between Islamist and secular forces would deepen. As in Algeria, hard-line, antidemocratic forces among the Islamists would be strengthened, and violence might follow.
What happens in the next few weeks in Turkey is important for the US. A stable, democratic Turkey is crucial for US foreign policy objectives, including peace in the Middle East and stability in both the Caucasus and the Aegean. Most Turkish politicians, the news media, and the military continually watch for signs of US reaction to this government. When US officials met with Erbakan before the vote of confidence last summer, it was interpreted as an endorsement of the coalition. Now, when State Department spokes-man Nicholas Burns says, "We believe that Turkey is stable politically. We believe that its secular democracy is going to continue," he sends a message of support for the coalition government.
Turkey is anything but stable. If the Clinton administration doesn't want to give implicit approval to a coup, it should send a different message: "We understand there is no check on the fundamentalist tendencies within the WP as long as Ciller is in charge of the TPP. At the same time, a coup in Turkey is unacceptable and would result in sanctions. We urge that Ciller leave her post and that the MPs bring down the government democratically." Any other position makes a coup more likely.
With Minister of State Abdullah Gul visiting Washington this week, now may be a perfect time to communicate that message. The United States needs to recognize its influence over the outcome and apply pressure to resolve the crisis democratically. Time is running out.
* Zeyno Baran is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.