A New Direction for Turkey’s Democracy?

Turkish military.jpg

AP Photo

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and top military commanders at the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk after the military’s annual meeting, August 1, 2011, Ankara, Turkey

My report from Turkey in the current New York Review of Books asserts that civilian power in that country has “emerged from the shadow of military power, a breakthrough of historic proportions.” The July 29 resignation of Turkey’s four top military commanders was a capitulation to that reality. It is likely to lead to something Turkey has never known: civilian control of the military.

There was a time—indeed, for most of the period that the Republic of Turkey has existed—when military commanders unhappy with an elected government would simply depose it. The last such assault, which I covered for The New York Times, came in 1997, and the way it was done reflected how powerful the military had become. There was no parade of tanks or storming of public buildings. Instead the commanders simply issued a series of “memoranda” outlining what they considered the sins of the Islamist-oriented prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and then presented him with a set of demands they knew he could not fulfill. Unable to resist their pressure, he resigned.

Now the opposite is happening. The military high command has found itself beleaguered by a government that has shown repeatedly—most recently in the June election—that it enjoys vast popular support. More than 200 military officers are in prison for suspected anti-democratic plots, and the army does not have the power to force their release. Frustration over this state of affairs led the chief of the general staff, Gen. Işık Koşaner, and his three top commanders to quit.

The final spark that set off the resignations was a dispute over the prosecution of military officers allegedly involved in plotting against the government: hours before the generals made their announcement, Turkish prosecutors said they were charging 22 additional suspects in that investigation, including several ranking members of the military. The real conflict, though, is deeper. From the founding of the Republic in 1923 until the AKP came to power in 2002, the Turkish army maintained an unofficial veto power over government policy, especially in security matters. Military leaders set the limits of civilian politics.

Now elected civilians are deciding what the military can and cannot do. In the past, meetings of the Supreme Military Council were run by military commanders while civilian leaders, including the prime minister and defense minister, cowered silently and awaited orders. At this week’s meeting, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in the chairman’s seat as he guided the appointment of generals to replace those who resigned.

The resignations were a symbolic protest by senior officers of the military’s diminished role. They reflect the maturing of Turkish democracy. In a true democracy, though, the army is apolitical. Whether Prime Minister Erdoğan wants an apolitical army or one under his control is still uncertain.

Turkey’s military always considered itself the ultimate guardian of Kemalism, the militantly secular ideology laid down by the Republic’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. It enforced a stifling consensus on society, politicians, and the press. Above all, this required fighting the rise of religious influence in politics. (Paradoxically, though, it was the army, during its period of direct rule in the early 1980s, that decided to promote Islamic politics as a way to combat leftism; it licensed scores of Islamic high schools and invited the self-exiled Islamic leader, Necmettin Erbakan, to come home and re-enter politics.)

Only true Kemalist believers were promoted to higher military ranks. I once attended a reception for young officers and their wives, and my Turkish companion explained to me that such gatherings had a hidden purpose. Officers whose wives appeared wearing head scarves, or who drank soft drinks instead of wine, were noted as possibly religious and therefore unsuitable for promotion.

Locked inside its own institutional capsule, the military failed to grasp or adapt to the rapid changes taking place in Turkish society in recent years. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of Turks completing secondary and advanced degrees, with a similar growth in social and geographic mobility and political awareness. People began to feel oppressed, not protected, by the military’s insistence on guiding the country. Many chafed at official restrictions on religious practice—such as limits on the wearing of headscarves in schools and public institutions—that the army insisted were necessary.

When Erdoğan first sought national leadership in 2002, many people voted for him because they knew he was not beholden to the military. They hoped he would be the Turkish leader who would finally push the military out of politics. This he has done, not only through direct actions but also by curbing institutions through which the military exercised power: the police, the intelligence service, the judiciary, and others. The recent resignations were a capstone of that campaign.


The desire of Turks for fuller democracy, which many expressed by voting for Erdoğan, is the main reason the army lost much of its authority over the last decade. It also, however, contributed to its own demise as a political force. Revelations that officers were connected to gangsters and death squads used against journalists and Kurdish nationalists sullied the institution’s image. News reports have also raised suspicions that officers have at times been less that vigorous in pursuing Kurdsh fighters, apparently reasoning that allowing attacks to proceed would increase sympathy for the military.

Turkey’s changing security situation also contributed to the erosion of military power. Its principal threat, the Soviet Union, disappeared with the end of the Cold War. Armies in all countries know that their power and money depends on convincing citizens that they face dangerous enemies, and as the Cold War wound down, Turkish commanders fashioned a scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners response to Kurdish nationalism. Their long war against Kurdish militants cost billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, but produced no measurable result. Even now, young Turkish soldiers and Kurdish fighters are periodically killed in clashes. Many Turks have concluded that it is time for a new approach, one designed by civilians rather than soldiers.

How fully Turkey’s civilian leadership is committed to fully-fledged democracy, however, is far from clear. The recent military resignations have intensified concerns that Erdoğan is becoming too powerful. He and President Abdullah Gül made clear that in the future, they will carefully consider all military promotions, rather than approve them automatically as past civilian leaders did. If they use their prerogative to block the rise of anti-democratic meddlers, that will be salutary. Erdoğan, however, has spent several years intimidating his critics and filling the bureaucracy with his allies. If he takes the same approach with the military a shadow could spread over Turkish democracy.

Although the Turkish military was an essentially anti-democratic force for eighty years, it also served as a kind of a la turca stabilizing force. It guaranteed a measure of secularism, women’s rights, and pro-Western foreign policies. In the new landscape, it is unclear who or what will provide that guarantee. Opposition political parties are weak and compromised by collaboration with the military. As I wrote in my Review piece, the Turkish press has also been intimidated in recent years by a startling number of arrests of journalists on murky charges. The checks built into the Turkish system—not just institutional but social, including an educated and self-confident population—will probably prevent Erdoğan from shaping himself into an authoritarian figure like Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chávez, but he may wish to move in that direction.

Turkey’s great political and security tragedy over the last quarter-century has been the failure of its policy toward Kurdish nationalism. For the first time since the conflict began, civilian leaders are now in a position to dictate the state’s response to Kurdish militancy. There is no indication yet that Erdoğan is ready to change course on this issue, but he has at least acknowledged the importance of resolving it, and changes in the military command offer him a tantalizing opportunity to do so. If he can one day tell Turks that his reshaping of civilian-military relations brought a peace to the Kurdish region that the army could not achieve, he may look back on this week as one that helped make peace possible.

The resignations of top military commanders—effectively, the surrender of the old Kemalist elite in the Turkish army—was a victory for democracy. It also creates a power vacuum that has never existed before in Turkey. Who will fill it, and how, will help determine the future of democracy in this highly promising Muslim republic.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in