Sunday, August 7, 2011
Turkish Generals Opt Out
The long battle between the Justice and Development Party and the military chiefs seems over, at least for now
For Turkey's hard-line secularists it spelled a humiliating end to Ataturk's republic. For their detractors it was an irreversible victory for democracy. Either way, the mass resignation of Turkey's military leadership on July 29 captured the dramatic shift in power that has been taking place ever since the conservative Justice and Development (AK) party took office nine years ago. The once-omnipotent army, which has toppled four governments since 1960, no longer calls the shots.
The outgoing chief of staff, Isik Kosaner, and the heads of the army, the air force and the navy requested early retirement because, in General Kosaner's words, it had become "impossible for me to continue to serve" owing to the "unjust" detention of his colleagues. This was a reference to some 250 serving and retired officers facing trial on charges of coup-plotting. The row is said to have erupted after General Kosaner pressed for some of these alleged conspirators to receive promotions. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, refused. Necdet Ozel, who commanded the gendarmerie (and who is said to get on well with the government), was appointed the new chief of staff. Unusually, he has not served with Nato.
Until recently the affair would have triggered a national crisis. For many, the drama marked the final chapter in the protracted struggle between the generals and AK. A former mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan was briefly jailed in 1998 for reciting verses from a nationalist poem that were deemed inflammatory. When AK won power in 2002 the generals and their allies continued to hound him. They allegedly cooked up coup plans, including the bombing of mosques and murder of Christians. With AK becoming ever more popular, prosecutors sought to ban the party on thin charges that it was trying to impose religious rule. Such intrigues only added to Erdogan's popularity. In June, riding on a wave of sustained economic growth, democratic reforms and mounting global prestige, AK won a third term in government, winning a record 50 per cent of the vote.
Erdogan is not the first Turkish prime minister to run up against the generals. Soon after coming to power in 1950, following the country's first multi-party elections, Adnan Menderes was warned of an impending coup. He promptly sacked 15 generals and 150 colonels. Much like Erdogan, he was the voice of religious, largely rural Turks.
Responding to record economic growth and an improvement in relations with Turkey's Muslim neighbours, voters gave him three successive terms of rule. Yet Menderes was destined for a sticky end. In 1960 he was overthrown by a group of young officers and, a year later, hanged on trumped-up charges of treason.
Erdogan often mentions Menderes as a reminder of what can befall those who dare cross the generals. Though it is unthinkable that he will suffer a similar fate, the Menderes story may hold a few lessons for the prime minister. Erdogan is (justly) credited with having brought about more reforms than any of his predecessors. His greatest achievement may be to have defanged the generals. Yet, much like Menderes, he seems more imperious by the day. Anti-government journalists continue to be sacked by media bosses fearful of incurring the prime minister's wrath. Long pre-trial detention periods for dissidents of all stripes (mostly Kurds) have prompted accusations that the government is more interested in intimidation than in justice.
The surest way to stifle such worries would be for Erdogan to make good his promise to write a new constitution to replace the current one, drafted by the generals after they last seized power, in 1980. But this will require compromise. In June's election AK did not win enough seats to amend the constitution unilaterally. Yet there are few signs that Erdogan is willing to work with the opposition, least of all the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The BDP has been boycotting parliament since the election because six of its elected members remain in jail.
There is another concern. Keeping the generals out of politics is a must. But what of the army's day job? With 12 per cent of serving generals and admirals in prison, notes Eric Edelman, a former American ambassador to Turkey and number two at the Pentagon under George Bush junior, "the Turkish military gives every sign of being a broken and rudderless institution." Turkey is better off with a depoliticised army; but a weak army would do its regional ambitions no good at all.
This article was published in The Economist on 07/08/2011