Five days after a party with roots in political Islam won Turkey's national elections, the head of the strongly secular military issued a statement today vowing to "protect the republic against all types of threats, especially fundamentalism and separatist activities."
Turkish analysts said the statement by Gen. Hilmi Ozkok was a routine recitation of the general staff's historical view of itself as the guarantor of Turkey's secular system, offered as usual on the anniversary of the death of Kemal Ataturk, the general who established modern Turkey in 1923 on strictly secular principles. But the statement also underscored tensions surrounding the ascension of the Justice and Development Party, which won an outright majority in parliament Sunday.
It achieved its victory by appealing to working-class Turks, emphasizing centrist credentials and playing down its Islamic connections. But the party's chairman and other leaders were previously active in overtly Islamic parties, including the now-defunct Welfare Party that the military forced from power in 1997 after 12 months of erratic and unpopular rule. The Justice and Development chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cannot become prime minister because he was convicted of "Islamic sedition" in 1998 while he was a member of Welfare and mayor of Istanbul.
In the wake of Sunday's balloting, Justice and Development officials and the general staff have spoken respectfully of one another. "We had a very democratic, incident-free election," Ozkok said during a visit to Washington to discuss plans for a possible U.S. strike against neighboring Iraq. "The outcome is the will of our people, and I can only respect it."
Justice and Development has avoided confrontation since its impressive win. Erdogan said the party would seek no immediate change on one of the military's pet issues, the banning in government offices and at universities of the head scarf many Turkish women feel their faith compels them to wear. In interviews, Erdogan brushed aside questions about the military's skepticism of his party's professed respect for Turkey's secular tradition.
"I find this question very, very wrong," Erdogan said on election night. "Under the constitution, we are a political party. We can never have any clash with the general staff. The job description of the general staff is very well defined, and the job description of a political party is very well defined. There is no overlap."
In fact, civilian and military officials meet monthly in the powerful National Security Council, the body that applied the fatal pressure on the Welfare government five years ago.
Several observers said the upcoming government likely will get the benefit of the doubt even from a watchful military, and only partly because of the party's strong electoral mandate. Another, more immediate reason is the keen eye of European Union officials. Turkey, a NATO member that bridges Europe and Asia, desperately wants to join the EU. But among the organization's stated reservations -- which include Turkey's record of torture by the police, among other human rights violations -- is the military's history of meddling in politics. Generals have led three coups since 1960, not counting the gradual removal of the Welfare government.
"There is the EU factor," said Bulent Aliriza, a specialist on Turkey at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The EU would take a dim view of any action by the military."