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‘White Turks’ caused former Turkish coups

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Dr Can Paker (right) spoke at an event organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies (CEFTUS) and chaired by Sir David Logan, the former British ambassador to Turkey

Thinktank director Can Paker says sociological upheaval is at the root of Turkish political changes in recent decades

An elite section of Turkey’s population had hoodwinked the country’s institutions, including the army, and used them to limit the power of marginalised groups, a thinktank director has said.

Can Paker – who chairs PODEM, the Centre for Public Policy and Democracy Studies – said the political life of the country was rooted in its foundation, when a Westernised elite that controlled the state’s institutions attempted to conduct a social engineering project and shape an ideal Turkish citizen that behaved and thought like a European.

He was speaking at an event in the UK Parliament organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies and chaired by Sir David Logan, the former British ambassador in Ankara.

Dr Paker said these elite citizens, known as “White Turks” were prioritised over other groups including Kurds, Alevis and religiously conservative Sunnis. He referred to this as a tutelage system of Government suited to a peasant-majority society.

The White Turk elites had used state institutions and especially the military to limit the power of the these marginalised groups through military interventions, of which there were three major ones in the late 20th century.

But things changed after the 1980 coup and the arrival of Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, who liberalised the Turkish economy which allowed religiously conservative people in Anatolia to start businesses, move to cities and become a new politically engaged middle class.

This, he said, helped to break the hold of the tutelage of the state institutions.

Military coup ‘fits the pattern’

Last year’s failed military coup attempt, Dr Paker said, fitted the sociological model he described.

The Gulen movement had also attempted to use institutions such as the military to enforce their will on the country, but the sociological model also explained the response from Turkish citizens in stopping the coup.

He argued that the fact that Turkish citizens came to the streets like never before to prevent the military coup showed that they had developed greater political awareness from these social changes and asserted that sovereignty belonged to them rather than to institutions.