On July 29th, 2011, the Chief of the General Staff and three other commanding Generals (Navy, Land and Air Forces) resigned. The only General who stayed in his post was the Commander of the Gendarmerie, Necdet Özel. This is a very significant event, not only because this is the first time in Turkish history that a mass resignation of military generals has taken place, but also because it constitutes a very important development in the often troubled sphere of civil-military relations in Turkey.
The reason why the four Generals resigned seem linked both to the Government’s determination not to promote Generals at the Supreme Military Council (YAS) meeting who are suspects in a coup case as well as the indictment of generals and officers with the attempt to overthrow the government though an internet campaign. The latter is a result of the trials that have been going on regarding the persons involved in the military-led Ergenekon conspiracy against the government. The alleged coup attempt was part of the long running dispute between the military institutions and the government due to the intensified efforts of the latter to implement constitutional reforms and thus decrease the power of the military over the state’s administration and political life. Today, although the military’s political power is clearly reduced, the Kemalist elite could not have remained inactive as it was confronted with the negative development of the re-election of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). In this light, the Generals’ action may have been aimed at employing the Kemalist historical heritage and the political culture that still characterises a large portion of the society in order to create the necessary conditions, and provoke the needed popular support, for a military coup or even a massive anti-government protest.
The recently re-elected AKP government had reacted calmly to the situation thus far. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said that this is neither a crisis nor something that cannot be handled, while he initially appointed Necdet Özel, the only General who did not resign, as Land Forces commander and active Chief of General Staff. Thereafter, on August 1, YAS convened to discuss the situation and take decisions, regarding the replacement of the resigned Generals, by the 4th of August. Finally, on August 4, President Abdullah Gül approved YAS’ decisions regarding which Generals should be promoted and who should replace those who resigned. In general, the government’s calm reaction played an important role in maintaining political stability and keeping the tensions to the minimum.
Overall it seems that, while this crisis is of historic significance and could have caused serious problems, the ruling party has handled it well. However, many questions remain unanswered. Was the resignation of the Generals really part of a greater plan? Is this the beginning of yet another coup? How will the AKP utilise the army? Is it possible that we will witness a decline in Turkey’s military power, and therefore in its overall power? As yet, answers remain elusive given the paradoxical nature of Turkish politics.
Despite the low profile reaction of the government it is obvious that the situation is indeed serious. Even so, Erdogan effectively replaced the military elite, thus acquiring more control over the army while maintaining the organisational and administrative stability of the armed forces. To what extent though does this restructuring, of the military institutions, leave the lower levels of the army unaffected and thus create space for anti-governmental tendencies to emerge? It seems that at least for the time being such danger is limited as Erdogan’s political actions have been fairly successful. Furthermore, the nationalist rhetoric, which the military-political elites and their supporters feed off, is not absent from the AKP’s statements or policies. It is important to note that in the days following the Generals resignation, Erdogan adopted a harsher stance regarding the Cyprus problem, clearly aimed at intensifying the nationalistic feelings among the people and thus maintaining social cohesion. That is because the Cyprus problem has always been a very sensitive matter in Turkey that bridges any differences within the society and the elites. From that perspective Erdogan managed to promote himself not only as the Islamist Democrat but also as the leader who does not abandon national problems, like Cyprus, illustrating the extent to which public opinion has acted as an important prong of the Turkish policy-making.
It would appear that the AKP and Erdogan are doing a good job striking a balance between nationalism, democracy and Islam. However, we should not rush to any conclusions since the Turkish political scene is driven by very complicated dynamics which could lead to significantly different developments in the short-term. There is always the possibility that the AKP’s increased power over the military will give the government a more authoritarian character which would mean that the Kemalist authoritarianism will continue to exist albeit in a different form and under different leaders. Lastly, domestic developments in Turkey tend to depend, among other things, on regional developments. Therefore, given the regional fluidity and the security challenges Turkey is facing on its borders, anything is possible.