A Rotten Year for the Military

January 4, 2010

Not surprisingly, as far as Western coverage of Turkish politics goes, it was once again The Economist that offered the most convincing verdict on how 2009 will be remembered in Turkey. Here is the opening salvo from last week’s article: “It has been a rotten year for Turkey’s generals. A series of leaked documents, tapped phone calls and sometimes plain accidents have exposed enough instances of shenanigans and mischief to shake the faith of even the most hard-core secularist. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the prime minister, has spoken of ‘historic changes.’ The days when civilians took their orders from generals in Turkey may be gone for good.”

After describing the specifics of the latest scandal and investigators’ unprecedented search of the Tactical Mobilization Group of the Special Forces Command, the article reminds us: “The latest operation marks perhaps the first time that civilian officials have carried out such an action against the army. Their ability to do so was enshrined in a landmark law, passed by the AK [Justice and Development Party] government in June 2009, that allows men in uniform to be tried in civilian courts.”

Thanks to such coverage and focus provided by The Economist on the civil-military relations dimension of what is going on in Turkey — rather than the tired old analysis of an Islamist-secularist cleavage — Western observers are now able to fully appreciate the real nature of Turkey’s political struggle. This political struggle between civilians and the military is also at the heart of the Ergenekon investigation. Despite all its imperfections and complexity the ultimate objective of the Ergenekon case is simple: civilian supremacy over the military. There is no other more important litmus test in terms of determining whether Turkey can become a liberal democracy worthy of European Union membership. And in the eyes of most Western liberal democrats the most fundamental question about Ergenekon is not whether it is legitimate or not, but rather how far the AK Party government is willing to rock the boat with the military.

The Economist provides an answer to this question, too: “After some wobbling, Mr. Erdoğan now seems ready to take the army on. Many officers, including several retired generals, are languishing in jail in connection with the so-called Ergenekon trial of a group of would-be coup plotters. With each new revelation that taints the armed forces, ever more Turks fret that the army may be undermining the state.

“This week General İlker Başbuğ, the chief of the general staff, admitted that the raids on the Special Forces Command were carried out within the law. Despite occasional growls about unnamed enemies blackening the army’s name, General Başbuğ seems quietly to be co-operating with the government in its investigation.”

This is indeed a remarkable development. Amidst all the ups and downs of daily politics in Turkey, one should not miss the big picture: the Ergenekon investigation could not have reached its current status without the cooperation of the top brass. Clearly, the top echelons of the military want to clean the institution from coup-plotters. Yet, one also needs to understand Gen. Başbuğ’s dilemma. The perception that he was unaware of all the shenanigans within the military fuels all kinds of speculation. If Başbuğ can’t control his institution, who can? What happened to the professionalism of the Turkish military? Where is the chain of command? If that’s not the case and Başbuğ knew full well what was going on, then why is he still in charge? If that’s the case, he should resign.

All this brings us to the third actor (after the civilian government and the military) in Turkey’s political drama: the opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Here is what The Economist had to say about this issue: “The main opposition leader, Deniz Baykal, has at times seemed even keener on a coup than are the generals themselves.” This is a rather tragic situation for a political party that thinks of itself as the representative of social democracy. It is high time for the CHP to engage in some soul-searching. Is the CHP in favor of liberal democracy, the EU, a democratic constitution and civilian supremacy over the military? If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then the party needs a new leader. The Economist is right, the real problem with Turkey seems to be the absence of a democratic opposition rather than meddling generals.