A New Era in Turkey's Civil-Military Relations

By Gönül Tol | Director of the Center for Turkish Studies - Middle East Institute | Aug 30, 2010

Turkey’s professional military has been a force for modernization and progress throughout the nation’s history. As the constitutionally-appointed guardian of the Turkish Republic, however, the military has often intervened in political affairs, resulting in a constant, underlying tension between the government and the military establishment in Turkey. Recently, tensions between Turkey’s democratically-elected civilian government and the military flared when Turkey’s Supreme Military Council (YAS) met in early August under the auspices of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make a series of new appointments within the Turkish Army. The four-day meeting turned into a battle of wills between the Turkish government and military, which has long had exclusive say in the appointment of the army’s highest ranking officials. At the end of the meeting, the posts of Land Forces Commander and the Chief of General Staff were left unfilled. Only after an additional eight days of back-channel negotiations was an agreement between the military and the civilian government reached: Gen. Erdal Ceylanoğlu was appointed to head Turkey's land forces and Gen. Işık Koşaner was named the next chief of General Staff. These historic meetings challenged the long-standing paradigm of military control over the appointments of the Turkish Armed forces, thus marking the beginning of a new era in civil-military relations in Turkey.

For the last several years, there have been signs of the declining role of the military in Turkish politics. One was the investigation and trials of several retired generals and active duty officers accused of conspiring to bring down the government, which helped spark public criticism of the military’s outsize influence in Turkish politics. More significant was the landslide victory of the military’s primary adversary, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), in the July 2007 elections. The AKP’s victory was considered a backlash against the so-called “e-coup” of April 2007, in which the General Staff posted a statement on its website that was widely interpreted as military interference in the presidential elections. The move backfired, and Turkish voters overwhelmingly endorsed the AKP, handing it a staggering 47% of votes in the elections.

Historically, civil-military relations in Turkey have lagged behind those of more advanced democracies. Turkey’s founders positioned the military as the ultimate guardian of the core values of the Republic, secularism in particular, and gave the military legitimate means to circumvent civilian control. Since Turkey’s inception in 1923, the military has enjoyed a wide degree of autonomy vis-à-vis its own internal affairs, and its interests have been well-represented in government. While other European democracies readjusted the role of their militaries in the post-Cold war era, subordinating the power of the military to that of the state, the Turkish military retained its hegemony over Turkish politics by raising the specter of Kurdish separatism and radical political Islam.

Legally, the appointment and promotion of military officers falls under the jurisdiction of the executive branch. Historically, however, this government responsibility has been usurped by Turkey’s military, which has made the majority of decisions pertaining to the posting of senior commanders within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Under Turkish law, the Secretary of National Defense submits an appointment list to the Prime Minister, who has the authority to approve or deny the appointments. The vetted list is then sent to the President for approval. In theory, the military’s appointment list is merely a list of recommendations subject to approval by the executive branch. In practice, however, the Army’s Chief of General Staff has appropriated the command appointment process to the extent that the Prime Minister and the President have traditionally signed off on the military’s list summarily and as a matter of course.

The outcome of this summer’s Supreme Military Council meeting – the government’s wresting control of military appointments from the Army’s Chief of Staff is the latest and most promising sign of Turkey finally righting the balance of power in its civilian-military relations.. The hard-line Kemalists who entrust the military with safeguarding Turkish democracy are skeptical of a process that has been increasingly curtailing the military’s role in politics. Nevertheless, the very process of disentangling the military and executive branch of government is imperative for a functioning Turkish democracy. The transition in the 1920s from an authoritarian Ottoman regime to a democratic Turkish Republic was accomplished by the Turkish military, which facilitated the establishment of the state of Turkey in the face of a unique set of challenges. The success of today’s modern state depends on the subsequent consolidation of democratic institutions, a task which is decidedly not the military’s to perform. The Turkish military has long since fulfilled this first and formative duty; it should now cede the second to democratic actors and Turkey’s civilian government. This is essential to strengthening the democratic reflexes of the Turkish people and to resolving historically thorny issues like the Kurdish conflict peacefully. If Turkey is headed in this direction, then this summer’s YAS meeting can be considered a victory for Turkish democracy and for the Turkish people as a whole.

Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.