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August 10, 2011
Summary: The recent resignation of the top Turkish commanders should be seen as something of a self-inflicted coup de grace. Most observers now agree that the multiple roles of the military in Turkish politics are gone, not to return. Neither the prevailing mood in the international system nor Turkey’s international affiliations allow for renewed political activism on the part of its military except at an unacceptably high cost to Turkey. A debate has now commenced among political parties as regards changing the legal-institutional basis on which the military has based its political interventions. Although there is general consensus that the political role of the military should be reduced, and it has become increasingly politically incorrect to defend an interventionist role, there are concerns that the last institution guaranteeing a secular modern republic has fallen. The constitution-making process will provide an opportunity to see if the government party will lead an effort to establish a system characterized by extensive civil liberties for the citizens and a system of government characterized by checks and balances.
Exit the Commanders
by İlter Turan
Gone with the Wind The recent resignation of the top Turkish commanders should be seen as something of a self-inflicted coup de grace. They marked the end of an era in which the Turkish armed forces had exercised significant if declining political power. The international response, particularly that coming from the European Union, has been favorable. For many years, the EU had been advising Turkey that one of democratic conditionalities for membership was that the armed forces be under civilian control. Turkish Armed Forces appeared to possess too much autonomy vis à vis elected governments and this had to be changed. Needless to say, the transformation of the relationship such that the elected government would command the military —i.e. have the final say in all policy questions including promotions to top command posts — had to await a shift in the existing balance of power. That shift came from two directions. On one hand, the governing party scored three electoral victories in a matter of nine years, each time getting a greater percentage of the vote than before, leaving no doubt that they had a strong popular mandate. The military, on the other hand, in trying to preserve its political role and influence under adverse domestic and
international circumstances, made a series of mistakes, revealing that the commanders had clearly exceeded their military responsibilities in ways that the law did not permit, despite the rather accommodating way political activities of the military are treated legally. It has been exposed recently, for example, that a number of websites were set up by the military under phony names to dispense information intended to discredit the government and to stimulate anti-government public opinion. Deinstitutionalizing the Political Role of the Military Most observers now agree that the multiple roles of the military in Turkish politics are gone, not to return. The military had not only been acting as a veto group, circumscribing what elected governments could and could not do, but it had also defined what the government ought to do on a sufficient number of occasions. It is unlikely that future military leaders will work to restore such an extensive political role for themselves. It is slowly becoming evident that there had been a deepening cleavage among the military’s top brass, with some defending a comprehensive political role for the armed forces, and others preferring civilian supremacy. The upper hand
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has now gone from the former to the latter. Furthermore, neither the prevailing mood in the international system nor Turkey’s international affiliations allow for renewed political activism on the part of its military except at an unacceptably high cost to Turkey, a fact of which the military is also aware. A debate has now commenced among political parties as regards changing the legal-institutional basis on which the military has based its political interventions. Over the years, a considerable body of law, regulation, and administrative tradition has emerged that need to be undone. At the top of the list is changing the notorious Article 35 of the Internal Services Law, which gives the military the right and the duty to protect the republic against both external and internal dangers. This article, in the way it has been written, has made it possible for the military leaders to identify internal and external dangers by themselves, define what needs to be done, and proceed, usually without consulting the elected government, sometimes even treating the government as a “problem” in itself. A change indicating that the armed forces “are responsible for assisting the government in ways the government sees fit in defending the country against external dangers” will solve this issue. The opposition Republican People’s Party has already announced that it is willing to help the government make this and other changes. Although the Justice and Development Party government has expressed skepticism about the sincerity of the opposition’s offer (for reasons this author is unable to identify), it is clear that soon after the parliament begins its session in October, the Internal Services Law will be changed. Another necessary change is reordering the government protocol to rank the chief of staff behind members of the Council of Ministers. The current rule is that this position is ranked after the prime minister but before ministers, causing an embarrassing problem in NATO ministerial meetings. While other NATO defense ministers, whenever appropriate, come with their chief of staff to meetings, either the Turkish minister or the chief of staff comes to be spared from embarrassment because if they attend a meeting together, the minister has to sit behind the chief of staff. The powers and duties of the National Security Council will also have to come under review. The council had served as the major forum where the military leadership had communicated and sometimes dictated their policy preferences to the government. The prime minister signaled the change in a symbolic fashion by sitting at the head of the table in the meeting room by himself, thereby changing the established practice that he and the chief of staff share that position. A vice prime minister later publicly explained, “You cannot have two chiefs in one organization.” The process of de-institutionalizing the political role of the military has commenced. It is likely to gain momentum when the Grand National Assembly starts considering a new constitution. Inevitably there will be an item in a law here and there that will have to be modified in the future. The fact is, however, that the major change has now taken place. The rest is implementation. The Need for “Countervailing Powers” Although there is general consensus that the political role of the military should be reduced, and it has become increasingly politically incorrect to defend an interventionist role, there are concerns among the modern, urban middle classes that the last institution that they saw as the guarantee of a secular modern republic has fallen. A prominent businessman explained, “In democracies, there must be a countervailing force to government; I am afraid that we have lost that countervailing force.” While such a viewpoint is not in harmony with the operations of democracies, it does represent a widely shared concern of people whom the government party has dubbed “White Turks.” These Turks, who had not proven themselves particularly adept at electoral politics, had come to view the military as the ultimate guarantee of a secular, modern Turkey. The prime minister has all along tried to allay such fears, saying that his government will not interfere with the personal lifestyle of citizens. His actions, however, as well as those of his ministers and mayors from his party, have not always been supportive of such declarations. The authoritarian proclivities that the prime minister has come to display more frequently in recent times has exacerbated fears that Turkey’s secular democracy will not be expanding but contracting in the future. The constitution-making process will provide an opportunity to see if the government party will lead an effort to establish a system characterized by extensive civil liberties for the citizens and a system of government characterized
by checks and balances. In the long run, what is needed is not just a good constitution or a yearning on the part of some for the return of the military to insure modernity, democracy etc., but the growth of a strong opposition party that can challenge governments effectively. Such a development is the best assurance for the success of Turkish democracy. In democratic societies, citizens shape their future rather than wait for the appearance of a deus ex machina called the military or a well written constitution at an unexpected moment of need to save them. Policy Implications of Change It is too early to judge whether the changing power balance within the country will affect the country’s external politics. If the accession negotiations that are being withheld for other reasons begin to move forward, one other conditionality, a lesser political role for the military, will have been met. More open to speculation are circumstances surrounding Cyprus. On occasion, it has been suggested that the military has insisted on pursuing an uncompromising line in Cyprus. Will Turkey be willing to withdraw more soldiers as a confidence-building measure in Cyprus now? Recent indications such as the remarks of the prime minister, the foreign minister, and others point to the fact that the government is not ready to make piecemeal gestures but will consider mutual concessions as part of a grand solution. There are no persuasive grounds to argue that the military constituted the major impediment to a grand solution that would involve the withdrawal of some of the Turkish military from Cyprus. On the domestic front, the so-called Kurdish problem is on the top of the political agenda. Again, while the military has led the fight against PKK terror, it has come increasingly to recognize that the solution will be devised in the political domain and that terror cannot be eradicated exclusively by military means. It seems that the government can count on the support of the military for bringing about a political solution. It may be that the recent change in the military leadership constituted the final confirmation of a change in government-military relations that had been going on for a long time. Therefore, major policy changes should not be expected to follow.
About the Author
İlter Turan is currently a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, where he also served as president between 1998-2001. His previous employment included professorships at Koç University (1993-1998) and Istanbul University (1964-1993), where he also served as the chair of the International Relations Department (19871993), and the director of the Center for the Study of the Balkans and the Middle East (1985-1993). Dr. Turan is the past president of the Turkish Political Science Association and has been a member of the Executive Committee and a vice president of the International Political Science Association (2000-2006). He has served as the program chair of the 21st World Congress of Political Science in Santiago, Chile, July 12-16, 2009. He is board chair of the Health and Education Foundation and serves on the board of several foundations and corporations. He is widely published in English and Turkish on comparative politics, Turkish politics, and foreign policy. His most recent writings have been on the domestic and international politics of water, the Turkish parliament and its members, and Turkish political parties. He is a frequent commentator on Turkish politics on TV and newspapers.
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