Turkey at a Crossroads

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In an unprecedented act, all four chiefs of the Turkish General Staff have requested early retirement. The move came days before the military’s most important annual meeting and was meant to send a message of disapproval to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government has decided to go forward with the trial of over 200 current and retired military personnel charged with plotting a coup d’état back in 2003.

The Khaleej Times editorial believes “The dramatic standing down of military chiefs, the navy and air force heads, primarily as a mark of protest, will certainly impact the country’s politics and establishment policies for a long time…. Turkey for long has been at the crossroads of quasi-parliamentary and quasi-military dispensation. But…several denominators, such as making Turkey part and parcel of the European Union and exhibiting leadership as far as the Muslim world is concerned, have never been lost. It would be prudent of Ankara to [proceed with] litigation and subsequent disciplinary action at the earliest. Dragging it [out] for political purposes will be counter-productive.”

For another gulf newspaper, The Peninsula, the development marks “a new phase in [Turkey’s] history. The resignations on Friday of four top army generals over differences with the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a powerful statement of the new power equation that has emerged in the political landscape…. What Erdogan has undertaken is a correction of the imbalance that has existed in the country. In a democratic state, as in America and most European societies, the elected government is superior, and the promotion process of the army is supervised by civilians. Turkey is now like any other country where, if the army bosses disagree with the government, they can resign.”

For The National editorial board however, the final outcome of this most recent military-civilian government drama is far from clear: “In recent years the ascendant star of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pushed the military into the background. In June, the AKP won a record third election, a dominating performance within the democratic process. The electoral mandate and widespread popularity of Mr. Erdogan’s party make it unlikely that the military would — or could — reassert its old grip on power. But the AKP certainly has its enemies…. Gen. Kosaner was thought to have better relations with the AKP than many of his colleagues. His resignation is being seen as a symbol of the army’s diminished power and a new era of Turkish politics. But the fact that he felt compelled to resign shows that there is still deep discontent under the surface.”

Others have opted for a more critical take on the news of the military chiefs’ resignation. Abdullah Iskandar, for example, wonders in an op-ed in Al Hayat about what Erdogan’s long-term objectives are: “There are winning cards in the hands of Erdogan, who has exploited the prevailing, suitable circumstances to stand up to the military, which he believes has always been negative about introducing any amendments to the Constitution…. This raises the question of Erdogan’s true intentions…. It is believed that Erdogan is fluctuating between two projects: one is personal, and one is Islamic. The person project involves turning the system of rule into a republican form…. Others believe that the course Erdogan seeks to take, when he becomes president with wide prerogatives, is aimed at removing the state’s secular character and re-Islamizing laws.”

American political scientist Dani Rodrik takes to the pages of Al Jazeera to raise a series of questions regarding the validity of charges against the alleged coup plotters. Rodrik, related by marriage to one of the alleged coup leaders, questions Erdogan’s claim of taking action in defense of democracy: “In reality, the trials amount to a grave breach of the rule of law, with the judiciary transformed into a political weapon aimed at opponents of the government and the Gülen movement…. These cases will eventually collapse under the weight of their collective absurdity. But the damage done will extend far beyond the suffering of hundreds of innocent individuals who have been locked up under false pretences. The hope that Turkey is finally shedding its authoritarian vestiges and becoming a stable democracy will lie in tatters.”

In Turkey, the main newspapers are taking the news in stride. Commentators on the Hurriyet Daily News seem to greet the story with a certain level of excitement. Murat Yetkin, for example, in addition to raising questions about the current transformation of Turkey’s military, can’t help but wonder about Turkey’s future: “It is indeed unfortunate that the Turkish military is experiencing this transformation via unpleasant accusations against its generals and that the top brass has to quit in desperation to open the path to a new era. Another new constitution is waiting for Turkey in that new era. Will that upgrade Turkish democracy, or will there be fears of authoritarianism on the horizon? That question is to be answered by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who carries not only the power but the responsibility of the 50 percent of the votes he won in June’s elections.”

Others are even more explicit, albeit more anxious about the kind of future that awaits Turkey. Yusuf Kanli, looking forward “towards a new Turkey,” notes, “The Supreme Military Council, or YAS, will convene Monday, most probably with less than two-thirds of its 16 members. Apart from the top commander seats vacated with Friday’s resignations,…only 10 of the 16 members of YAS, mostly civilians, will be present at Monday’s meeting…. The development has shown that the military top brass now have only one option if [they are] unhappy with civilian politicians, to pack and go. No more coups or memorandums forcing governments to step down. Turkey has ushered in a new era. Yes, a new era that is relatively more democratic but unfortunately very conservative and Islamic.”

In addition to the implications for domestic politics, Ariana Ferentinou in an article also on Hurriyet Daily News,  asks what the consequences for the Cypriot conflict might be: that “Whether the near-collective resignation of the leadership of the Turkish Armed Forces was the last battle of a long war or the beginning of a new one, this will take some time to determine…. Historically, the military in Turkey has had a major role in the affairs of the country…. Cyprus and the relations with Greece had been issues where the Turkish military had traditionally had its say, providing sometimes an excuse for Turkish politicians to justify their tough stance…. Freshly confirmed to power as prime minister by an impressive third electoral victory, Tayyip Erdogan is heading now for the presidency while pushing the military back to their barracks. And I wonder whether the Greek Cypriots and the Greeks, for that matter, would find this popularly elected absolute leader more willing to give any ground the negotiating table than the intransigent Turkish generals.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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