Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, talks with Gen. Necdet Ozel, Turkey's new Land Forces Commander and acting Chief of Staff, at the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Kemak Ataturk, after the military's annual meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, 1 August 2011 (photo: AP)
The Battle between Army and Government

A New Republic in Turkey?

Ahead of a key military meeting this week, chaired by the country's prime minister, the Turkish army has been rocked by a series of top-level resignations. Fatma Kayabal investigates the latest developments in Ankara's ongoing power struggle between the military and civil spheres

"A village shall not have two village heads," says Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç when asked about the "historic" picture taken at the most recent gathering of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) in Ankara.

What was different? Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat alone at the head of the table, breaking the custom of previous sessions of the annual meeting. Past assemblies saw the prime minister and chief of General Staff sit side-by-side at the head of the table, a reflection of power sharing in Turkish politics.

The new image was seen by many as a symbol of Erdoğan's full control over the military in the wake of the resignation of Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner and the commanders of the land, naval and air forces due to disagreements with the government at the end of July.

Experts like Aslı Aydıntaşbaş of the Turkish daily Milliyet underlines that this new picture is indicative of a new era. She writes: "The reality is, the first republic era which was based on strong secularism established in 1923 under the guardianship of the military is over now," adding that it remains unclear what the basis of the second republic will be.

A history of military coups

During what Aydıntaşbaş describes as "the first republic" era there were four military coups; in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, the last of which was termed a "post-modern coup". The 1980 coup also produced the current constitution, which – while amended several times – is still considered an obstacle to Turkish democracy. In the latest elections in June, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) promised the electorate a brand new constitution.

Isik Kosaner (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the navy, the army and the air force resigned Friday, 29 July 2011 to protest the arrest of dozens of generals as suspects in an alleged plot to overthrow the country's Islamic-rooted government

​​A constitutional amendment package was taken to referendum on 12 September last year, the 30th anniversary of the 1980 coup. The package was passed by a 58 per cent majority and the amendments it included curbed some of the power held by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The immunity from prosecution of the 1980 coup plotters given by the constitution was revoked, although as yet (and despite several investigations) they have not been held to account for their actions.

The amendment also changed the dual judicial system of Turkey; under the 12 September constitution military officers were only to be tried in a military court, even if they committed a crime against the democratic regime, were involved in a coup plot or even in drugs trafficking.

After the amendments several court cases were opened in which over 250 military officers including some top generals have been taken into custody on charges of plotting an armed revolt to overturn the government.

Retired Gen. Koşaner's farewell message addressed the imprisoned TSK officers, and he stated that he could not defend their rights. He claimed that the investigations, arrests and judicial proceedings against army personnel were not based on concrete evidence and were creating worry, anger and resentment among TSK staff.

Islamic parties at loggerheads with the military

However the arrested generals are not the only reason for the power struggle between the government and the military. The non-violent ousting of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan by the army in 1997 marked a watershed. Erbakan's Islamic-leaning Welfare Party (RP) had been governing in a coalition with the True Path Party (DYP). The RP was the first party of its kind to achieve mainstream success in Turkey and many see the AK Party as its successor.

erbakan (photo: AP)
Erdogan's political progenitor Necmettin Erbakan: The non-violent ousting of the then Prime Minister by the army in 1997 marked a watershed, writes Fatma Kayabal

​​The military has from the very beginning been against the rule of the AK Party. They posted an official declaration on the website of the General Staff in 2007 against the presidential candidacy of then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül.

The government called snap elections, winning a clear majority and electing Gül president. This move by the TSK, termed by some as the "e-coup" was another round won by the AK Party in its ongoing conflict with the army.

Public trust in the military has always been very strong in Turkey, but the events of recent years have started to erode this trust. The process began with the blocking of Gül's candidacy and, despite the questions marks that also hang above members of the former political elite in Turkey, it has been eroded still further due to recent court cases in which top generals are key suspects. Gen. Koşaner in his farewell message also underlined this, saying the TSK had been presented as a criminal network.

Many analysts say that the retirement of the four top commanders may pave the way for the government to speed up military reforms, including the subordination of the General Staff to the Ministry of Defence – a long-standing demand by the EU. This stance sees the retiring commanders as having presented a serious obstacle to democratic reforms.

However, some analysts like Professor Mehmet Altan underline that despite the victories of the civil authority over military tutelage in the past few years, many necessary democratic reforms have not occurred.

"For the establishment of the second republic, Turkey should construct itself on the principles of pluralism, democracy and a law based on citizen rights," says Professor Altan, speaking to Qantara. "The road to this goes through the recognition of the right of the conscientious objectors, religious minorities, realising labour reforms and greater rights for unions, and many other similar regulations. It has to be proven that the aim is not to take over the current power relations, but to establish new and democratic ones."

Fatma Kayabal

© 2011

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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