Turkey's Top Generals Resign: Little Impact on Turkish Politics

The once all-powerful military lost its top commanders, but there seems to be little impact. Owen Matthews reports.

AP Photo / Turkish Presidency Press Service

The heads of Turkey’s general staff, as well as the generals in charge of the Navy, Army, and Air Force, resigned Friday, leaving Turkey’s once politically all-powerful armed forces temporarily leaderless. Just a few years ago, such a move would have heralded a major showdown between the military and government—and probably would have been the precursor of a military coup. Times, though, have changed, and this showdown is set to show that Turkey’s civilian authorities have the upper hand.

Ever since the Islamist-rooted AK Party came to power in 2002, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been chipping away at the Army’s political authority. Now, instead of shaking the government and throwing Turkey into political crisis, President Abdullah Gül—a key AK Party stalwart—moved quickly to replace the departed commanders with more loyal military brass.

The resignations were an attempt by Turkey’s top generals to protect a swath of senior officers accused by prosecutors of plotting to undermine the government in a series of investigations into alleged coup plots and conspiracies to create chaos through political assassinations and bombings. Over the last two years, 192 officers—including 40 generals—have been questioned or indicted by prosecutors, including several who were in line for promotion to top jobs this year. And in the last week, 22 more top officers were charged with covertly sponsoring a series of websites that bitterly attacked the AK Party. It was Erdogan’s refusal to promote this last set of accused officers that sparked Friday’s dramatic move by the general staff.

What’s striking is how little impact the resignations have had. Erdogan insisted that “the laws in this country are functioning” and that “there will be no tension.” President Gül swiftly promoted Gen. Necdet Ozel, former head of Turkey’s paramilitary police force, as land-forces commander, putting him in line to succeed as chief of the general staff Monday, when new military appointments are traditionally made.

Instead of a show of strength, this showdown is a sign of how much power the Army has lost since the days when it engineered its last “soft” constitutional coup, in 1997, against an Islamist government headed by Erdogan’s political mentor, Necmettin Erbakan. Then, rather than using guns and tanks, the military mobilized a powerful web of loyal journalists, politicians, and judges to oust a government it believed was undermining Turkey’s secular state. Now the generals can’t even rely on solid public support. Thanks to a steady drumbeat of leaks from prosecutors of Army misdeeds—from organizing death squads to backing political assassinations—the number of Turks who say they trust the military has slipped from 90 percent in 2008 to 70 percent earlier this summer, according to a recent Turkey Values Survey.

The eclipse of the power of Turkey’s generals as the backroom arbiters of politics has pleased the EU. The European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Dutch Christian Democrat Ria Oomen-Ruijten, told the Turkish daily Today's Zaman that “Turkey is becoming a more democratic country in which democratic institutions have an oversight on military decisions.” And it seems to please ordinary Turks, too. Two years ago Turkey’s ultrasecularist judiciary, at the urging of the Army, attempted to ban top AK Party leaders—including Gül and Erdogan—from public office for their attempts to scrap a ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves at universities. Calling the judges’ bluff, Erdogan went to the polls—and won. And just last month the AK Party pulled off its biggest election victory ever, polling close to 50 percent of the vote.

Many Turks remain uneasy about political Islam. But though Erdogan has built ties with the Middle East and bashed Israel, he’s steered clear of any overtly Islamic legislation at home. Instead, he’s talked up Turkey’s credentials as the only Muslim democracy. Today’s failed showdown shows that after four military coups in as many decades, Turkey’s voters, rather than the generals, now decide who’s in power.