The July 2013 coup in Egypt has prompted considerable debate about whether transitional democracies can be nurtured by military rule. It is often argued that the military can play the role of a neutral arbiter in the political sphere; it can be useful in distributing power, limiting excessive majorities, and introducing a culture of negotiation and power sharing. In these arguments, the military is perceived as a checks-and-balances mechanism, an institution builder that will strengthen democracy in the long term.
The Turkish military is often cited as leading exemplar. Since the first military coup in 1960, the Turkish military played a central role in establishing laws, installing institutions, and regulating politics. One cannot deny its impact in shaping Turkish politics, but it is hard to argue that military interventions and the tutelary role of the military nurtured Turkey's democracy. On the contrary, it interrupted and significantly delayed the process of democratization.
To call the Turkish military a "democratizing" power is a fundamental misconception. It is in fact an institution that has staged four coups against democratically elected governments. Following the coups, new constitutions were written by military-controlled assemblies. Until today, in fact, Turkey has been unable to produce a civilian-made constitution. The military's role in politics has constituted major blows to Turkey's democratization process, in which the military has a history of limiting the power and autonomy of civilian government actors.
The military thus acted not as a facilitator of democratization but as a retardant: It wrote constitutions and built institutions that were hardly compatible with a modern liberal democracy. Whenever political reforms were discussed in Turkey and demanded by the European Union as part of Turkey's accession process, they always involved amending the constitution. This was precisely because the military-made constitutions did not include provisions to enable civilian control of the military. Nor did they protect political parties, which resulted in the closure of 28 political parties by the constitutional court since 1961.
What the military-made constitutions did was to institutionalize the autonomy of the military over the civilian governments through the powerful National Security Council. Moreover, military coups destroyed the autonomy of political parties and suppressed the internal dynamics of social actors.
The 1960 coup closed down the then-ruling Democratic Party, and Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and two members of the cabinet were executed. After the 1980 military coup, all political parties were abolished and their leaders were banned from politics for 10 years. Following the 1997 coup a civilian government was forced to step down, and the constitutional court closed down Turkey's most popular party. In short, the Turkish military attempted to intervene in the natural course of political developments, thereby preventing Turkish democracy from maturing at its own pace.
After coups people never took to the streets to push back the military despite the fact that it was their will the military overruled. Instead, they expressed their reactions by means of the ballot box, where they usually voted for the followers of the political party that had been overthrown. Knowing this, the military established a system in which elected governments had to share power with the military.