Events

The Crisis over the Role of the Turkish Military

March 03, 2010 // 1:00pm3:00pm

Since its inception, the Turkish General Staff—the elite ruling body of the military—had been a zealous defender of Kemalist principles and secularism and unaccountable to any political authority. The so-called "Ergenekon case," in which top military generals have been indicted for plotting against the current government, has been widely seen as a severe blow to the once dominant military force, reflecting the ascendency of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The arrests of military officials have recently been stepped up in the context of the so-called "Sledgehammer." The panel of experts on Turkey's domestic and foreign policy issues discussed the causes of the military's decline and possible responses by the military to the rising influence of AKP in Turkish politics. Although the panelists agreed that the military is no longer a formidable force in Turkish politics, it remains to be seen whether the General Staff will respond with a violent coup (as it has in the past) or learn to accept its diminishing role.

Henry Barkey argued that the erosion of the military's power in Turkish politics is symptomatic of a profound change in the composition of Turkish society. The emergence of pious Anatolian business elite, made possible by the economic reforms in the 1980's, diversified Turkish society and allowed new stakeholders to penetrate the political mainstream that had long been dominated by the secular elite. AKP, a product of this new Islamic Anatolian bourgeoisie, tapped into this Muslim undercurrent and acquired a commanding majority during the 2007 elections. The military, which has traditionally been the avant-garde of Turkish modernization, resisted this sweeping societal change by holding on to the "ideological straightjacket of Kemalism." Barkey argued that, although it had once dominated both the political and social spectrum, Kemalism can no longer meet the demands of an evolving society. As a result, the traditional role of the military is steadfastly declining. In order for the government to adapt to the realities of Turkish society, Barkey concluded that the constitution needs to be reengineered.

Mithat Melon also expected that the current crisis between the secular military establishment and the AKP government would be an impetus for internal political reform. However, he warned that if institutional changes are delayed, change may come about through a coup, which would lead to further instability. He argued that constitutional reform should be implemented through the existing institutions by the parties who were brought to power legitimately through peaceful elections. Like Barkey, Melon noted that the Turkish General Staff has remained static despite the dramatic demographic shifts and urged that structural reform should be conducted within the military. As the world becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, he urged, the Turkish government needs to adapt its political institutions in order to better meet these internal and external challenges.

Steven Cook added that a string of scandals and incidents has aided in weakening the military's public standing. The coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and the "post-modern" coup of 1997 had demonstrated the military's dominance, but these coercive means of political control are no longer viable. Although reforms associated with EU accession have facilitated efforts to whittle away at the military's power, its weakness also reflects the military's inability to force its political will on society. If the military were to attempt another coup against the AKP, the regime would likely be seen as illegitimate in the current international political climate and would undermine the strategic Turkish-American partnership. At the same time, if the AKP continues to marginalize the military by arresting generals and using its power to manipulate the judiciary in violation of the rule of law, the political environment in Turkey will further destabilize and its international standing would also fall. Given this critical juncture in Turkish politics, Cook recommended the US safeguard its partnership with Turkey by emphasizing the importance of democratic principles and the rule of law, both to the military and to the AKP government.

By Herma Gjinko and Andri Peros
Christian Ostermann, Director, European Studies

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