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TURKEY: Resignations Herald the Demilitarisation of Politics

ISTANBUL, Aug 5 2011 (IPS) - The simultaneous resignations of Turkey’s top military brass last week indicates that the civilian government may finally have more sway over politics than the top generals, according to analysts and activists.

The resignations that took place just before the annual Supreme Military Council Meeting mark a boiling point in the history of relations between Turkey’s military and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

While this gradual transfer of power from the country’s military elite to democratically elected representatives worries some who covet the military as guardians of the secular republic, others perceive the events as natural side effects of a process of demilitarisation within Turkey’s decision- making structures.

Turkey’s military has long been a dominant force in both society and politics. All Turkish men are conscripted for military service, and this is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood. Furthermore, the military has long seen itself, according to secularist Kemalist Turks, as “the sole guardian of republican values and secularism.”

“Turkey has been notorious for military dominance over politics, but this dynamic between the military and the rest of the branches of the state has not remained fixed, as in other countries that undergo rapid political transformation,” Berna Turam, a researcher on state-society relations in the Middle East, told IPS. “To the contrary, the military’s interaction with the other parts of the state, particularly the parliament, has been shifting dramatically since 1998.”

A Non-Military Approach to the Kurdish Conflict

The resignations on Friday came on the heels of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement of a drastic new strategy in confronting guerrillas supported by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdoğan vowed to reduce the deployment of military personnel within Turkish borders. The clear subtext of his message was that the military would no longer be used as the primary combatants against the PKK.

Instead of soldiers, a massive new counter- terrorism police force under the direct control of the government will take over the majority of operations against the PKK. This elite police force will cooperate with the military gendarmerie to attempt to secure the Turkish border with northern Iraq, from where PKK guerrillas often launch their attacks.

In this regard, it is notable that the only top commander who did not resign is Necdet Özel, the military gendarmerie commander.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Communities Union, a regional popular assembly in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, warned that civil war may be imminent due to the PKK’s growing impatience with the AKP regarding the Kurdish issue, according to the Firat News Agency.

The Turkish military is the second largest in NATO - behind only the U.S. - and has troops deployed in countries such as Afghanistan and Lebanon. So the replacement of the "old guard" generals with new, possibly more democratically minded officers, could also have repercussions beyond Turkey’s borders.

In 1997, the military intervened in politics by informing Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan – of the Welfare Party – that the military would like him step down. The implication was that if he did not do so of his own will, the military would use force as it had in the three other coups in the republic’s 88-year history. The first, in 1960, ended with the public hanging of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.

AKP’s Democratic Reforms

Erbakan’s Welfare Party was the first openly Islamic party to rule in Turkey, a fact that the military did not readily accept. AKP also comes from Islamic roots. Given the events of 1997, it comes to many as a surprise that AKP has managed to rule – uninterrupted by the military – since it first came to power through a sweeping victory in the 2002 general elections.

Mensur Akgün, director of the Istanbul-based think tank Global Political Trends Centre explained to IPS how AKP has persevered in the face of a military establishment opposed to its rule: “Firstly, AKP learned their lessons from the process with the Welfare Party in 1997. Secondly, they have been supported by the people in the country because of their reform policies.”

AKP has undertaken massive economic reforms, privatising billions of dollars worth of formerly state- run enterprises. Since 2002 Turkey’s per capita GDP has nearly tripled and its economy has grown from the world’s 26th largest to the 16th. But it is AKP’s broad liberal, democratic reforms that have won the trust of the people.

The resignation of Chief of General Staff I?ik Ko?aner and other top generals shows how far democratisation and demilitarisation have come in Turkey.

After the 1960 coup, the military established the National Security Council (MGK). The MGK is ostensibly a weekly security meeting between the top military leaders and the heads of the government.

However, it has long been a well-known fact that the military use the MGK to explicitly set the agenda for elected politicians. Last fall, AKP publicly announced that it would no longer be taking orders from MGK.

The Turkish constitution is the most significant target of AKP’s democratisation project. The country’s current governing document was drafted by the military government after the 1980 coup, and as such has many anti-democratic provisions in it. One such provision is Article 15, which grants immunity to coup instigators from being tried for their actions during the coup.

Following a referendum in September 2010 in which the Turkish people overwhelmingly voted in support of changing a number of articles in the constitution, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s AKP was given a clear popular mandate for drafting a new constitution.

The Roots of the Conflict – Between Secularism and Democracy

These initiatives have drawn the ire of the secularist military establishment. However, in AKP’s first term, the possibility for cooperation seemed brighter. It was only with the candidacy of Abdullah Gül in 2007 for president that the relationship between AKP and the military visibly soured.

Although the president of Turkey is a largely symbolic role, the president does retain the right to veto parliamentary decisions. Prior to 2007, secularist president Ahmet Necdet Sezer was viewed as a check on AKP’s power. The candidacy of Gül, a devout Muslim, jeopardised that check.

In response, secularist citizens demonstrated around the country en masse and for a time it seemed that AKP would be forced to rescind power. However, it was later revealed that the military had engineered the protests, largely through the clever use of websites to manufacture the appearance of dissent. In the aftermath, the military was discredited and the public’s trust in them was severely weakened.

“I see 2007 as the end of engagement and constructive contestation and the beginning of conflict and discord,” Turam said.

The generals tendered their resignations in protest of an ongoing investigation into a coup plot. The plan, called ‘Sledgehammer’, dates back to 2003, shortly after AKP was first elected. Nearly 200 active duty and retired military officers have been arrested for suspected involvement in ‘Sledgehammer’.

Prior to the yearly Supreme Military Council Meeting, which handles the promotions of all senior military personnel, Erdo?an made it clear that no officer under suspicion would be promoted. When Ko?aner and his cohort realised they could not have their way, they resigned.

“As we know from various court cases, they were obviously trying to topple to government – not through a military coup – but this time through soft power. Moreover, they objected to the election of President Gul,” Akgün says. “But now we have a totally different climate thanks to the transparent judicial process that Turkey is going through. The generals are now able to accept finally the supremacy of politics over the military.”

“Because the fact that the Chief of Staff’s resignation did not cause the scandal it would have caused just five years ago shows us once more that the military is slowly returning to their barracks and their impact on politics is decreasing steadily,” Merve Al?c?, a spokesperson for the pro-democracy group Young Civilians, told IPS.

During this year’s Supreme Military Council Meeting, which went ahead as planned, Erdo?an also signalled that AKP would pursue legislation that will entirely forbid the Turkish Armed Forces from making political statements. If such legislation goes through, it will signal a dramatic shift in the way politics is conducted in Turkey.

Akgün remains cautiously optimistic: “This is certainly not the final step, but it is an important step for the democratisation of the country. There are still issues regarding human rights and freedom of expression. This is most probably not the final round of confrontation with the military.”

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