Turkey’s military has long intervened in the country’s politics, but a recent power play by leading military figures is remarkable — but for what did not happen. Turkey’s top military resigned in a power struggle with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan late last month, yet that show of force did not topple his government. It is a long-awaited sign of the maturity of Turkish democracy; hopefully now Turkey’s generals will understand their proper role in their country’s politics.
Turkey’s military has considered itself the guarantors of the country’s secular traditions. That has meant that the military has shown no hesitance to intervene when the government appeared to stray from the path laid down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern Turkish state in 1923. The result has been three coups and the removal of an Islamic prime minister in 1997. More often, however, the military has not had to intervene forcibly; instead, it has merely let its preferences be known and politicians have deferred to them, typically rubber stamping military decisions.
The civil-military relationship has been changing since the 2002 elections, which brought to power the Islamic Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AKP). Turkey is a predominately Muslim state, so the AKP’s political ascension was probably only a matter of time. But the inevitability of that rise did not lessen the tensions between it and the military. Fortunately, the AKP is also a moderate party, which blunted the force of some of the military’s objections. Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union, which demands rigorous democratic credentials from its members, also helped dampen military enthusiasm for direct action against the government.
Nevertheless, both sides — conservatives and Islamic politicians — remain suspicious of each other. The secular forces point to the government moves such as the lifting of the ban on women wearing head scarves at universities as signs of creeping Islamization. The Islamists point to the existence of “Ergenekon,” a clandestine ultra-rightist organization that was reportedly plotting to destabilize the state by acts of terror and assassination. Over 500 people, many of them associated with the military, have been taken into custody and more than 300 charged with membership in a terrorist organization.
More damning still were the mass arrests in February 2010 associated with “Sledgehammer,” a reputed plot to spark a coup in Turkey. It was supposedly unveiled at an army seminar in 2003 and has resulted in trials for more than 200 people, many of whom, again, are high-ranking military figures. The defendants claim that the coup plans were just a military contingency exercise. As a result of various cases, every four-star general in the air force has been charged with a crime, and half the nation’s admirals are in jail as well.
On July 29, Chief of the General Staff Isik Kosaner and the heads of the army, navy and air forces all requested early retirement. Gen. Kosaner said that it had become “impossible” to continue serving as a result of the detention of 250 serving and retired military personnel. That move followed the indictment of another 22 high-ranking military officials for allegedly engaging in an antigovernment smear campaign on the Internet.
In fact, the real cause seems to have been Prime Minister Erdogan’s insistence on having the final say on military promotions. Reportedly, Gen. Kosaner wanted to promote officials who were in jail. The prime minister held his ground, forcing the resignations. While some complain that the move, along with the rest, could undermine the operational capacity of the Turkish military — 12 percent of serving flag officers are in prison — the move also purges the upper ranks of anti-democratic officers.
Concerns about the impact of the move have been allayed by the convening of the Supreme Military Council as scheduled and the holding of the regular four-day meeting. The top brass in each service have been replaced and President Abdullah Gul has pointed out that “everything is continuing as normal.”
Gen. Necdet Ozel, the head of the paramilitary police force and a reported supporter of the constitution, on Aug. 4 was named new chief of staff. Other promotions were also named.
Mr. Erdogan’s assertion of his prerogative as prime minister is a victory for civilian control of the military. Of course, there is the danger that an overassertive prime minister can be just as damaging to the constitutional order as a military that is indifferent to its civilian masters. But a military that ignores the law as it contemplates the proper rank of its most senior officials is an excess that no government can afford. Turkey is finally normalizing the relationship between the political and military worlds. It is long overdue and a positive development for an increasingly vital country.
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