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Turkish democracy hanging by a thread?

Aug 3, 2011 | Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

Turkish democracy hanging by a thread?
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While democratic reform seems to have been sweeping the Middle East, the strongest Muslim democracy in the region may have been quietly moving in the opposite direction. This morning’s Jerusalem Post editorial took a rather down-beat tone concerning the retirement Friday of several of Turkey’s top military officials – the latest episode in the ongoing struggle between the military, the traditional defender of Turkey’s secularity, and the soft Islamism of the ruling AKP.

Ominous changes are afoot in the old seat of the Ottoman Empire. In a stunning and unprecedented turn of events, Turkey’s entire military brass – including chief-of-staff General Isik Kosaner and the commanders of the army, air force, and navy – resigned en masse Friday. The immediate cause was a crackdown waged by the judiciary on the army’s top ranks, which put one out of every 10 high-ranking officers in prison for an alleged (and probably trumped-up) coup plot.

But in a larger sense the resignations underscore the extent to which the Turkish military – the second largest in NATO – has lost its political clout. Once considered untouchable and regarded as the most trusted institution in the country, the army has long served as a bastion of secularism … The latest developments are part of a protracted erosion of the secular foundations of the republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. … The military has seen its prestige plummet since the religiously rooted, conservative Justice and Development Party, or AKP, took power in 2002. 

Certainly, as illustrated by an investigative article  by Anthony Shadid in Monday’s New York Times, the secular elite in Turkey are concerned that the country is slowly slipping into a theocracy. 

ILIVRI, Turkey – The retired men in this town of rolling hills, red shingles and resentment of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paused their card game to voice their fears over the protest resignations of most of Turkey’s military command, an event that underlined Mr. Erdogan’s stamp on an era he can call his own.

“He finished the army,” said Rait Kurt, sitting at a table flanked by pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, whose principles the military has long said it upholds.

“Our biggest protector is the army,” added a friend, Ozdemir Elmas.

“Who shall we trust now?” Kurt asked rhetorically. “Who?”

Shadid interviews several members of this group, most of whom echo these fears. Similarly, Seth Frantzman follows on from The Jerusalem Post‘s editorial by positing that this development is not – as many have claimed – a victory for democracy in Turkey. Rather, he argues that Turkey is shifting to some form of autocratic populism, with the recent resignations cementing the military’s powerlessness to prevent this transition.

Kosaner resigned his post, apparently in protest of what he saw as government meddling and purging of the military. The 65-year-old general not only resigned, but took almost the entire military hierarchy of Turkey with him. Standing in solidarity with Kosaner were Land Forces Commander Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu, Naval Admiral Esref Ugur Yigit and Air Forces Commander Gen. Hasan Aksay. 

… Being of the generation of 1945, the men lived through all of Turkey’s four military coups, the first of which took place in 1960 when the men were in their teens. One must understand, therefore, the perception these men had of their institution. It is widely known that the Turkish military has often acted as the power behind the political throne, forcefully ensuring that Ataturk’s brand of Turkish national secularism remains the state’s guiding principal.

Behlul Ozkan, a lecturer at Marmara University in Istanbul, claimed in Al Jazeera that “for the first time in Turkish history, top military commanders decided to quit their positions rather than seizing power and deposing the elected government.” Ostensibly the commanders are outraged that around 10 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been arrested and a total of some 200-250 military officers have been jailed … represent[ing] the decimation of the army’s command structure.

… Turkish society is moving away from secularism and is enshrining populist one-party rule. The army as an institution cannot save it from itself, just as the Praetorian guard did not save Rome. However, those who see in the recent events a triumph for civil society may find that Turkey is not actually moving in a purely democratic direction.

The process described by Frantzman is very similar to the way in which Russia changed slowly into the de facto autocracy that exists in the state today. Fortunately, however, there may not be quite so much pessimism on Turkey’s future. Writing for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, The Washington Institute’s Soner Cagapty took a different approach to these resignations, viewing them rather as a challenge laid-down by the army that the AKP cannot meet. As Cagapty points out, the AKP has a history of avoiding confrontation – by taking such a prominent public stand, the military may be forcing Erdogan to face the issue head-on, a position in which he would not be too comfortable.

Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a coalition of conservatives, reformed Islamists and Islamists, came to power in Turkey in 2002, relations between the AKP and the military have been tense. But thus far, the military has played along. By staging a walkout at the leadership level, the Turkish Army has finally told the AKP, “We are done playing with you. Set up your own team — if you can.”

The dilemma for the AKP is that this may not be possible. All Turkish military officers undergo the same training, with the same discipline, commitment to secularism, and subsequent opposition to the AKP. It will be difficult for the AKP to find supportive officials in the military’s top ranks… the AKP does not have a history of backing down; rather, the party typically veers slightly to avoid direct collisions. Now, however, the AKP is on a direct collision course with the military. Turkey’s stability hinges on the success of collective bargaining: The AKP and the military must agree that although they hate one another, they cannot do without each other.

Whether the resignations represented military submission or a final stand, they certainly demonstrate the extent to which Turkey’s secular leaders view the AKP as an encroaching threat. Turkey has often been touted as the Middle East’s democratic triumph and an example of how a Muslim nation can transition peacefully and effectively into democracy. Unfortunately, the success of the Turkish experiment may well be hanging in the balance, as Erdogan considers how he will deal with elevated opposition from an increasingly weakened military establishment.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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