The era of military interference in politics is ending for good in Turkey. Almost the entire top military brass stepped down last week in protest over what Chief of the General Staff Isik Kosaner called government and government-aligned media efforts “to turn the great nation against their armed forces.” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan readily accepted the resignations and this week will name the replacements.
But these developments are not black and white. The dated outlook of Gen. Kosaner is telling in itself, but he also formulated an important critique of the procedural flaws in the arraignments without trial of almost 10 percent of Turkey’s generals and about 250 junior officers, pointing out that the lumbering and opaque legal process in Turkey is making it “impossible to solve this situation within a legal framework.” Kosaner is right to point out that the dragnets by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, are responsible for some military officers being detained for a long time without even a preliminary ruling on the charges.
Given Turkey’s recent history of military coups, it is a great achievement that military leaders now seek retirement instead of making a lunge out of the barracks when there is disagreement or perceived misgovernance on the part of civilian politicians. Yet this failure to meet minimal judicial standards is especially worrying in light of Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly self-centered demeanor and his wide-ranging control over his party’s members of parliament. On the one hand, the recent occurrences signal a rapid transformation of Turkey’s governmental structures toward more democratic institutions such as civilian control of the military. But on the other hand, the moves further the consolidation of power at Prime Minister Erdogan’s office—a development that could raise its own problems in the future.
The major worry at this point is this—the charismatic and popular prime minister is better known for his polarizing leadership style than for his management skills when it comes to the difficult task of creating consensus in a rapidly evolving Turkish society. How he and his party handle this will be telling for Turkey as a regional power and a democracy astride the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. Some hints of how this will play out are evident in recent developments.
The military resignations
History is being written in Ankara this week—recall the coups of the past. In 1960 the military overthrew a democratically elected government and hanged Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Foreign Minister Fatin Rustu Zorlu. Eleven years later the military forces sent the elected prime minister an ultimatum dissolving the government and forcing a new coalition under military tutelage. Again, in September 1980, the political process was taken over by force. Chief of Staff General Kenan Evren headed the regime for three and a half years of military rule in which at least a quarter-million Turks were detained and torture was used rampantly. The military implemented 800 laws and a new constitution, which remains in place even today.
Then, in 1997, the military engaged in what has been termed the first “postmodern” coup by placing a statement on their website that forced Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to resign his position to a secular leader. At that time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan served as mayor of Istanbul in Erbakan’s Islamist Refah Party. After publicly reciting a militant religious poem, he served a prison sentence and was banned from politics for the rest of his life. Today, the same judicial establishment that incarcerated him is now taking on the military.
What triggered the renewed confrontation between the military command and Prime Minister Erdogan was his insistence, alongside President Abdullah Gul, in the letter of the law, which does not allow it to promote military officials during detention. More than 100 military officers including top-ranking generals have been detained as part of a series of investigations into alleged coup plots. After the military leaders stepped down last week, Prime Minister Erdogan assembled the Supreme Military Council on Monday, and even though 4 of the 16 members were missing, the governing AKP maintained a business-as-usual attitude minimizing the fallout from the conflict.
The meetings with military leaders will continue until Thursday. They are expected to conclude with the former commander of the gendarmerie, Necdet Ozel, officially appointed as general chief of the armed forces.
The judicial situation
There are serious problems, however, regarding due process in the pending trials against journalists, civil society activists, and military officers. The AKP has put its support behind a series of aggressive and unprecedented investigations that claim to be pursuing a broad, multifaceted coup conspiracy that includes not just the military but also journalists and civil society activists who stand to be charged with disseminating propaganda in support of terrorist groups. In this dragnet the lines between fact, falsehood, and downright fantasy are becoming increasingly blurred. The judicial processes are lumbering and opaque, with files running into the thousands of pages and littered with documents of suspicious providence and veracity. Detention periods can last months, even years, before a judge reviews that case and dismisses it. And it doesn’t help that the prosecutors are still using the same illiberal legal code that was once used as a weapon against the now-ruling AKP.
President Gul stated last week that he does not want the crisis to go any further. He acknowledged that the events “of course were extraordinary, but now everything is continuing its course as usual.” But this quest for normalcy comes with an obligation for the AKP government: to establish due process and guarantee fair and timely trials.
In contrast, past reforms by Prime Minister Erdogan’s government have strengthened civilian control over the armed forces. In 2003 the parliament passed a reform bill that increased the number of civilian members in the National Security Council. And instead of being able to make “priority recommendations,” the military is now confined to a purely advisory role.
In addition, the armed forces have less authority to request documents and information from the executive branch of the government. When the military leadership opposed Abdullah Gul’s presidency because his wife wears a hijab, the AKP pursued his candidacy nevertheless. Yet the military’s response did not go further than boycotting receptions attended by the first lady.
The largest opposition group, the Republican Party, or CHP, traditionally closely aligned with the military, has by and large supported the move toward civilian control. CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu insisted that civilian authority must be established, but at the same time stated that through the resignations the “importance of a disinterested judiciary has been emphasized once again” and claimed that the “courts are being utilized by the political authorities.”
After this week the military will never return to the commanding heights of the Turkish state. Yet it is still unclear whether the AKP’s victory will ultimately be in the name of democracy. If anything, that will be the real challenge for the ruling party. Given Turkey’s prominent role in U.S. foreign and security policy, it is important that the rule of law prevails in Turkey. As an emerging power in the Eastern Mediterranean, much of what Turkey can contribute to stabilizing the region will depend upon further democratization within the country. For the United States, the Cold War ally has become a strategic partner—the full development of the rule of law in Turkey is a national security interest of the United States.
Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress where his work focuses on climate migration and security and transatlantic foreign policy including Turkey, and Tyler Evans is an intern with the National Security team.