Turkey names new military chiefs
Raft of new appointments following resignation of army, navy and air force commanders revives democracy hopes
For decades the Turkish military has run rings round the government, staging coups whenever it was displeased and exerting a powerful, largely unaccountable grip on society.
All this is changing, say experts, with the announcement on Thursday of a raft of new appointments among the top brass of the armed forces following the mass resignations last week of the commanders of the army, navy and air force. They quit on 29 July, along with General Isik Kosaner, chief of general staff, over the detention of 250 officers accused of plotting to overthrow the Islamic-rooted government.
The surprise move had raised concerns about the stability and state of democracy in Turkey, with some fearing another military intervention in Turkish politics. Others predicted the "Islamisation" of Turkey's secular armed forces by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government. Some worried there were also international ramifications: Turkey's army is the second-biggest in Nato, smaller only than the US.
But after the appointment of new generals on Thursday, the reaction was largely optimistic, with analysts arguing that the reshuffle might be the catalyst for democratic reforms.
"[The resignations are] another step in the retreat of the Turkish military to the proper institutional role and functions that befit a democratic country," wrote Soli Özel, professor for international relations at the Istanbul Kadir Has university. He, like many, was cheered by the government's refusal to bow to the demands of the outgoing commanders, who had asked not just for the release of their military colleagues, but also their promotion.
"It can be seen as the surrender of the military in a war they started losing a long time ago," said Gencer Özcan, professor for international relations at Bilgi University. "[It] shows that the Turkish military no longer poses any kind of threat to the civilian government."
This is no small matter in Turkey, where the military staged coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, forcing the ruling government to resign. The wounds of the violent 1980 coup in particular are yet to heal for many Turks, when the army rolled into towns and cities and arrested at least 650,000 people. Among the detainees, 230,000 were tried, 14,000 were stripped of citizenship and 50 were executed. Many thousands were tortured.
"The resignations are emblematic of the shift in recent years of the power relationship between the military and the civilian establishment in favour of the civilian establishment," said Sinan Ülgen, chair of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, an independent thinktank. "Very few people in Turkey are against this shift."
Ülgen said the power balance started tipping in favour of the political elite just over four years ago. On 29 April 2007 the military published a text on its website the so-called e-coup bluntly warning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) against putting up Abdullah Gül, then foreign minister, as its candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. The government firmly rebuked this last serious attempt of the military to meddle in politics, Gül became president and the AKP walked away stronger and more confident, winning a landslide victory in subsequent national elections.
Critics of the government argue that Erdogan will now try to reform the military along his own lines, thus threatening democratic checks and balances, but not many agree. "In a democracy, military reforms are decided and implemented by the civilian government; the military simply has to obey their decisions. In that sense, members of the military cannot be 'democratic', as that is neither their task nor position," said journalist Lale Kemal, who writes for Taraf, a left-leaning, anti-military newspaper.
Her main concern lies with the critical stance of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP): "I am sceptical about the weak support from the CHP [concerning the resignations] because this will make it harder for the AKP to implement democratic reforms."
The real problem, said Ülgen, is that previously the military played a significant if "wholly undemocratic" role as watchdog of the executive powers. Curtailment of this role leaves a vacuum which should be filled by a truly independent judiciary and a free media, he added "but the government shows no sign of entrusting either body with this role".
Ülgen argues that the government has continued to curtail the independence of the press and the courts by promoting AKP sympathisers to key judicial positions and prosecuting journalists who criticise the government most notably two writers who are in jail for writing a book about the Gülen religious movement which supports the government.
The new military appointments are: Emin Bilge (navy), Mehmet Erten (air), Hayri Kivrikoglu (ground) and former military police commander Necdet Özel as chief of general staff. None of names was a major surprise, but indicated a measure of compromise.
The choice of Kivrikoglu as head of the ground forces will have raised some eyebrows. When serving in northern Cyprus he refused to greet President Gül at the airport. Another candidate for the post, General Aslan Guner, was appointed to a less senior job as head of the military academies. His path to the top was believed to have been blocked by his refusal to shake the hand of the president's wife because she was wearing a headscarf.
The military plays a major role in Turkish society: children are often dressed up in military uniforms on national holidays and military service is mandatory for every able-bodied Turkish man over 20. Particularly contentious is Article 318 of the penal code, which punishes any activity which aims to "make the people lose its sympathy towards the military". This clause, among other things, criminalises conscientious objection, a basic right explicitly recognised under the European Convention on Human Rights in July 2011.
National Security lessons have been mandatory for all high schools since 1926, three years after the founding of the Republic of Turkey. While the name of these classes has been changed several times, the content and objective to familiarise Turkish students with the army basically remain the same.
The heritage of the military coup in 1980 also weighs heavily on Turkish universities who were put under the umbrella of the Higher Education Council, founded in 1981 with the aim of centrally controlling formerly autonomous universities.
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