The rift between Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Turkish military reached a critical breaking point with the resignation of the military’s top command staff. The resignations of four of the country’s five top generals is perhaps the most poignant protest in Turkey’s history, with those stepping down including the chief of staff and the leading commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
For years, journalists and analysts have been concerned that the rising power of the AKP was a sign of increasing Islamic bent within a staunchly secular NATO ally. Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the military has been widely regarded as the defender of both secular and democratic civilian leadership, and in its history the military has unseated governments that pushed the bounds of their electoral mandates — whether secular or Islamist.
However, since a coup in 1980 established a military regime and rewrote the Turkish constitution, popular resentment against the military/secular establishment has intensified, with a significant portion of the more religious Muslim population feeling disenfranchised. The terms ‘secular’ and ‘democracy’ have often been espoused as synonymous in Turkey, leaving little room for Islamist currents in the political process.
This looked set to change in 1996, when the leader of Turkey’s Welfare Party (RP), Necmettin Erbakan, was elected prime minister. However, this Islamist foray into the upper echelons of Turkish politics was short lived, when less than a year later Erbakan stepped down at the behest of the military establishment.
Since coming to power in 2002 the AKP has wielded its strong electoral mandate to address this historical inability of the Muslim majority to gain, and maintain, representation at a national level; in no small part by steadily weakening the power of the military and its independence from civilian leadership.
Armed with loose terrorism legislation that enables the imprisonment of accused parties for 10 years without trial, and aided by the popular memories of military oppression the AKP has managed to steadily curtail the power of the military establishment.
Indeed, it is the pervasive public perception of the military’s involvement in extrajudicial torture and killing — whether against leftists, the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or the Turkish far right— that has overrode a rational investigation of charges against military personnel. The so-called ‘Ergenekon Case’ has attempted to pin many of the county’s best-known scandals and terrorist activities on a clandestine kemalist ultra-nationalist group, with purported links to the military. Spanning the past decade the Ergenekon case has provided the legal basis for the imprisonment of nearly 200 military personnel — none of whom have yet been convicted (though they remain either in jail or under house arrest).
While the military must take responsibility for past transgressions, the Ergenekon Case is widely regarded as a farce. As Gareth Jenkins, of the Central Asia-Caucus Studies Institute’s Silk Road Studies Program, said in 2009: “The fear is that [the case] represents a major step not— as its proponents maintain — towards the consolidation of pluralistic democracy in Turkey, but towards an authoritarian one-party state.”
On Friday, July 29, the highest-ranking members of the chain of command attempted to make a final stand against this effort.
A meeting that morning between Chief of Staff Isik Kosaner, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul preceded the indictments by a Turkish court of 22 military generals and officers. In response to the charges the chief of staff and the commanding officers of every arm of the military, except the Jandarma (the gendarmerie), announced their retirement.
In the scramble following the resignations, the PM promoted General Necdet Ozel from Jandarma general commander to the position of land forces commander, just hours before appointing him chief of staff. This enabled Ozel to co-chair the meeting the following Monday of the Supreme Military Council (YAS). Over the course of the four-day meeting, it was expected that YAS would decide on the promotions of Turkey’s next commanding officer class, with the PM having the final say in the highest appointments.
For the first time in Turkish history, a civilian and Islamist government has the opportunity to change the military’s essential role in the country — first established by Kemal Ataturk with the modern Turkish state nearly a century ago.
Further resignations are yet expected.
SEAN COX is an Istanbul-based researcher and political analyst