[Marxism] Stephen Kinzer on the military resignations in Turkey

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 3 11:44:15 MDT 2011


NYRblog : Roving thoughts and provocations from our writers
A New Direction for Turkey’s Democracy?
Stephen Kinzer

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 

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 

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 

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.

August 3, 2011 10:30 a.m.

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