Monday, 01 February 2010

Though Military is Marginalized, Turkey's Liberalization Remains Elusive

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 2 of the Turkey Analyst)

The Turkish military no longer commands the obedience of society. However, the demilitarization of the Turkish polity is not ushering in a reversal of the traditional state-society relationship. The omnipotence of the state is not in any basic sense challenged. The AKP seeks not so much to dismantle the absolute state authority that the military has embodied, as it strives to become its new embodiment.



BACKGROUND:  The military is traditionally the most trusted institution in Turkey. However, a recent opinion survey (conducted by the A & G Company) reveals that the string of allegations during the last year that military officers have been concocting schemes designed to create disorder in the country with the ultimate aim of toppling the AKP government has begun to erode public confidence.

Before the start of the controversial Ergenekon coup conspiracy trial, in which several active and retired members of the armed forces have been implicated, around 90 percent of the population used to express confidence in the military. During the proceedings of the Ergenekon trial, the public support receded to around 80 percent. Presently, only 63 percent expresses confidence in the military. That decline is indeed noteworthy and probably related to the many disclosures of alleged military plots. Most recently, in December 2009 Taraf newspaper revealed allegations of a military plot to assassinate Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, and earlier in the year reports emerged that a group of officers in the Navy may have been involved in a terrorist plot. Eight officers employed at the counter-insurgency unit of the General staff were detained in relation to the Arınç assassination case, five of whom were subsequently released. Law enforcement authorities conducted a historically unique search at the premises of the General staff that lasted several days.

It can be assumed that the standing of the military will suffer even more, as a new set of allegations have since made the headlines. According to the latest alleged coup plots, the then commander of the 1st army in Istanbul, General Çetin Doğan, was scheming to topple the AKP government in late 2002 and early 2003.  In March 2003, a sizeable group of generals, among them Doğan, met at the army headquarters at the Selimiye garrison in Istanbul for a war game; according to the tape recordings from the seminar – which were also made public by Taraf – the assembled generals discussed how the AKP government could be forced to declare a state of emergency in a situation when war with Greece threatened and when “reactionary elements” and Kurds  - “the enemy within” – had taken advantage of the foreign crisis, and risen against the state.

The disclosure of harrowing details of the alleged coup plot, codenamed “Sledgehammer”, and above all the fact that bombings of several mosques in Istanbul were purportedly included in the supposed plan to destabilize the country, has caused consternation. The Chief of the General staff, General İlker Başbuğ, responded to the charges by angrily lashing out, deeming it unacceptable to suggest that the military – “whose battle-cry is Allah” – would even contemplate attacking believers gathered in prayer.

The truth of these and earlier allegations are impossible for an outside observer to assess; the general staff argues that the leaked documents have been tampered with, and Taraf’s ability to repeatedly access leaked documents is in itself noteworthy. However, such allegations are taken seriously in the first place because the suspicions that the violence that preceded the military coup in 1980 had been intentionally provoked by state agencies have never been dispelled. The General staff did not deny the existence of the “Sledgehammer” in unequivocal terms, referring to it as a “war game”, and suggested that parts of it had been tampered with.

The Ergenekon trial, and the fact that the AKP is supported by a large and growing portion of the media (See Turkey Analyst, January 18, 2010) has contributed considerably to restricting the military’s room of maneuver. A decade ago, generals could summon sympathetic media owners and demand that they fire journalists who displeased the military. That option is no longer available. General Başbuğ’s warning at his recent press briefing that “our patience is running out” would ordinarily have been interpreted as presaging a coup; today it fails to inspire fear among those who are the objects of the military’s anger and frustration. The critics of the military in the media are not intimidated.

The AKP has, like no other ruling party before it, asserted civilian power, and challenged the military’s prerogative to set the rules of governing. However, it may still be early to proclaim the AKP as the winner in the “civil war” that rages at helm of the Turkish state.

The AKP government suffered a setback in January, when the Constitutional court unanimously overruled the law that had been passed by parliament last summer and which opened the way for trying military personnel in civilian courts. And the chief public prosecutor at the High Court of appeals has ominously declined to deny the rumors that he is preparing to file a new closure case against the AKP.

By all accounts, the military and their allies in the state establishment remain deeply suspicious of the AKP. According to the recordings from the 2003 war game, the participant generals were in agreement that nothing less than the survival of the state was at stake. Indeed, the belief that the ascendancy of the AKP is dooming the state is widespread among secularist-nationalists. But even assuming that the military has been marginalized, that does not automatically herald the arrival of liberalism and the destruction of the statist tradition in Turkey.

IMPLICATIONS: Since the foundation of the Turkish republic, the military has embodied the state; and historically, the holders of state power have deeply resented the specter of societal forces escaping the control of central authorities, not simply because that would jeopardize their power and its attendant privileges, but more fundamentally since such an eventuality has been perceived as presenting an innate threat to the integrity and survival of the state. Today, the dynamics of the periphery have not only escaped control and overwhelmed the centre of state power, but the basic assumption of the Turkish polity since time immemorial – that the omnipotence of the state must be safeguarded and society kept subdued at any cost – seems to be about to be overturned.

Seemingly heralding a departure from traditional statism, President Abdullah Gül recently stressed that “it is contrary to the very nature of a democratic state to cast what is diverse in the same mould”. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made a point of celebrating cultural diversity, as he has been seeking to mobilize support for the government’s so-called Kurdish opening.

These celebrations, and the “openings” to Kurds and other minorities, with an implicit – albeit not necessarily intended – acknowledgment that the state has a duty to defer to societal heterogeneity, conjures up the prospect of a liberal transformation of Turkey that stands to be completed once the power of the military has been definitely curbed. Indeed, it has significantly benefited the AKP – in terms of internal and not least external support – that its policies have been framed in emancipating terms. Conversely, the liberal rhetoric and the envisaged “openings” confirm the fears of those who apprehend the intentions of the AKP as anti-statist and anti-nationalist. The exultation of the liberals is matched by the paranoia of the secularist-nationalists.

What easily escapes attention is that there is a fundamental convergence of perceptions about the role of the state at work. Indeed, the raging power struggle is about the control of the state; it tends to obscure that the protagonists in the battle do not in any deeper sense challenge the state’s control of society. Indeed, it would be wrong to assume that the AKP is motivated by any hostility even to the military as an institution. On the contrary, Muslim conservatives also sanctify the military, identified as it is by the faithful as “the hearth of the prophet”.  Similarly, the Islamic conservatives have historically deferred to state authority, animated by the fear that the absence of an omnipotent state would invite “fitna” - anarchy, divisions and strife among the faithful.

Ultimately, the historically rooted sanctification of the state, which promulgated a Turkish nation with the advent of the republic, has served to fuse Muslim religiosity and Turkish nationalism. The AKP seeks not so much to dismantle the absolute state authority that the military has embodied, as it strives to become its new embodiment. In fact, there are numerous indications that the AKP entertains the hope of eventually forming a partnership with a pliant General staff that would still remain a pillar of the state. (See Turkey Analyst, 28 September 2009)

CONCLUSIONS:  Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the notion of “the enemy within” is old-fashioned and that it has to be abandoned in the contingency planning of state institutions. Yet, notwithstanding its rhetoric of “opening” to oppressed minorities, Erdoğan’s government continues to subject its Kurdish citizens to treatment as the enemy within.

Liberal columnist Cengiz Çandar at the daily Radikal reports that over a thousand Kurdish political representatives, among them several mayors, have been rounded up by the police in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern provinces since the closure of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) by the Constitutional court in December. Çandar also estimates that one thousand Kurdish children linger in the prisons in the Southeast. Minors are still being charged as terrorists and sentenced to long prison sentences for crimes allegedly committed during demonstrations, though prosecutors often fail even to prove their presence at the demonstrations.

So far, the AKP government has nothing substantial to show for its much vaunted “Kurdish opening”. Worse, the AKP has shelved a proposed bill that if enacted would have ended the practice of charging demonstrating Kurdish children as “terrorists”. It was a missed opportunity to prove that a sincere “opening” – a departure from the custom of keeping society subdued – is indeed contemplated.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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