Journal Essay

The Turkish Military as a Political Actor: Its Rise and Fall

Pelin Telseren Kadercan and Burak Kadercan

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Dr. P. T. Kadercan is a visiting assistant professor of history at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who specializes in modern European and Near Eastern history. Dr. B. Kadercan is an assistant professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College in Newport, specializing in territorial and religious conflicts; the views expressed here are solely his own.

The piece was submitted for publication in April 2016, several months before the coup attempt of July 15. The authors consciously chose to make no changes to the content of the document beyond copyediting.

During the summer of 2013, as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to criticize Mohammed Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party for its increasingly autocratic and "Islamic" posture, the Egyptian military under General Sisi toppled the government and suspended the constitution. By contrast, what did not happen in Turkey when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in June 2013 to criticize then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (JDP) attracted little attention. The military, the pivotal actor in Turkish politics since 1960, with four coups under its belt, was not there. What would have happened if the so-called Gezi Park protests of summer 2013 had broken out in 2007, when the army was still considered a potent political force? Suggesting that Turkey in 2007 would have looked like Egypt in 2013 would be a stretch; Turkey is not Egypt. Yet, it is difficult to make the case that everything would have been the same. The question then becomes, what happened to the military?

Between 2007 and 2011, the presence in politics of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) was literally shattered. This came as a result of a series of high-profile trials (some of which are now widely accepted to have been based on fabricated evidence) as well as public-relations (or, according to some, defamation) campaigns that ironically resembled the armed forces' modus operandi during its last — "post-modern" — coup in 1997. Put simply, the process through which the army quit the political sphere was neither voluntary nor graceful. It was, in the end, a countercoup of sorts. The puzzle, then, runs even deeper: how could the JDP defeat the military in a game — rough power politics — in which the latter had excelled since the coup of 1960?

In this article, we provide a novel and counterintuitive explanation for this puzzle: as its political might grew, the army's mode of involvement in politics became too sophisticated and over-bureaucratized for its own good, eventually rendering it too "slow" a political actor to keep up with the JDP's "agile" and pragmatic modus operandi. As tensions between the army and the JDP were boiling by 2007-11, the latter was able to catch the former off-guard and effectively pacify it by putting its weight behind legal cases such as Ergenekon and Balyoz. These involved numerous members of the military being charged with crimes ranging from conspiracy against the elected government to outright terrorism. At the same time, the JDP galvanized public support behind then Prime Minister Erdoğan, who himself had been a victim of the military's overbearing political might in the past, outflanking the TAF in the political sphere.

This explanation poses two challenges to the existing literature on the place of the armed forces in Turkish politics and proposes a theoretical framework that can travel beyond the Turkish experience. First, we argue that students of civil-military relations should directly engage the precipitous fall of the TAF, which is not easily explained by the existing accounts. The relevant processes through which the military was ousted from the political arena then can inform us about the future trajectory of Turkish democracy. The second challenge we pose, in turn, points toward how the conventional wisdom anachronistically projects into the past the image of a unitary and all too (politically) powerful TAF (which best applies to the 1980-2002 period). The ways in which the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 were carried out, not to mention the decision-making processes behind them, can hardly be associated with an unchanging military. For example, the coup of 1960 was initiated by a handful of mid-ranking officers, while the post-modern coup of 1997 was conducted within the chain of command. We argue that exploration of the institutional evolution of the TAF vis-à-vis civil-military relations reveals key insights about not only its rapid downfall as a political actor but also its rise to prominence in the first place.

In addition, we propose a theoretical framework that can help explain under what circumstances politically strong militaries can be "toppled" through countercoups. Finally, the paper offers a counterintuitive conclusion about the future of Turkish politics: the risk of a military coup launched by mid-ranking officers is considerably higher now than it was before the countercoups of 2007-11.

The remainder of the paper unfolds in four sections. First, we highlight the central puzzle and situate it within the broader literature on Turkish civil-military relations. The second section provides a theoretical framework that can help us better understand the nature of countercoups. Third, we offer a historical narrative that traces the rise and fall of the TAF as a political actor. We conclude by highlighting a number of implications that follow from the theoretical framework and historical narrative.

This essay is only available in the print edition of Middle East Policy.

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