A Stealthy Victory for the Turkish Military

Their wings have been clipped, but they’re still the big winners in the EU membership process.

Prime Minister Erdogan

At long last, the Turkish republic is beginning talks to enter the European Union. More than three centuries after Ottoman armies were stopped at the Gates of Vienna, and 42 years after signing an association agreement with what was then the European Economic Community, Europe may finally be opening for Turks, even though it will likely take a decade or more before Turkey finally joins. It is an astonishing irony of the Turkish political system, which is officially secular, that this triumphant moment belongs to the Islamist-leaning Adelet ve Kalkinma (Justice and Development Party) and its two leaders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

Since capturing an outright majority in the Turkish Grand National Assembly in late 2002, AK has undertaken an impressive array of reforms that have gone a long way toward razing the authoritarian institutions of the Turkish state. Indeed, after ramming seven reform packages through parliament over the course of two years, the European Commission determined in October 2004 that Turkey had met all the legal requirements to begin accession talks.

Of the democratic reforms that Turkey has undertaken, none is more important and controversial than those related to the Turkish military’s power and autonomy. For example, in December 2003, the Grand National Assembly terminated the military’s exclusive control over a discretionary pool of funds that was generally used for weapons procurement. For the first time since the 1940s, this change grants civilian leaders oversight of military expenditures. In an additional move that served to limit the officers’ influence, military representatives were removed from various non-defense-related government bodies, notably the Higher Education Board and its High Audio-Visual Board. Established after a 1980 coup, these boards were useful platforms from which the military policed the universities and media for the three historic no-nos of Turkish politics: Islamism, Kurdish nationalism, and communism.

But by far the most significant alterations intended to diminish the military’s strength and influence relate to the powerful military-dominated National Security Council, known by its Turkish acronym MGK. Officially established after a 1960 coup d’etat, Turkey’s 1982 constitution directed the government to “give priority consideration to the decisions of the National Security Council” under all circumstances. The AK-sponsored reforms of 2003-04 reduced the MGK to an advisory body with a single military representative (instead of the previous five) under the leadership of a civilian. To add insult to injury, in addition to stripping the MGK of its executive power, AK’s reforms shifted responsibility for the council’s budget to the civilian prime minister’s office. While the then-leaders of the MGK expressed concern that the changes were “annihilating” the National Security Council, Prime Minister Erdogan nevertheless pressed ahead.

The emerging conventional wisdom concerning recent developments in Turkey holds that the broad support within Turkey for EU membership constrained the military’s ability to oppose the political reforms Europe requires. This left the officers with no choice but to submit to a significant diminution of their traditional political influence. In fact, however, it is hardly game over for Turkey’s military establishment.

While the Islamists are basking in the glow of the European Union’s recent decision to move forward with membership negotiations, the military may actually have triumphed in its decades-long struggle against Islamists. Reforms aside, the national-security state in Turkey remains deeply embedded, affording the Turkish military ample means to influence and, if necessary, to intervene in the political arena. The General Staff, for example, remains outside the control of the civilian minister of defense. And while the Turkish prime minister formally presides over military promotions and retirements, the officers actually maintain exclusive control over personnel matters. This makes it all the more difficult to establish civilian control of the military, which is a hallmark of democratic polities. Additionally, the service codes of the armed forces, which direct the officers to defend the country and the republic from internal and external threats, remain intact. While this seems noncontroversial and is, indeed, a guiding principle of armed forces all over the world, Turkish commanders have a tendency to interpret threats to the political order rather broadly.

Gen. Hilmi Ozok

For example, last April, the usually mild-mannered chief of staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, made a tough speech at the Turkish War Academy warning that the armed forces would not tolerate a redefinition of Turkey as an “Islamic country.” Given the importance of past patterns of civil-military relations in which the military forced four governments from power at regular intervals over 40 years, this was surely a reminder to Prime Minister Erdogan and the AK-controlled legislature that the military remained vigilant against threats to the secular order.

Perhaps the most telling signs that the Turkish General Staff has prevailed have more to do with the behavior of Turkey’s Islamists than the military itself. Since coming to power in 2002, the AK government has either been unwilling to expend its political capital on Turkey’s hot-button Islamist issues or simply has been blocked from doing so. When, last February, the government tried to give graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools an advantage in university admissions, the military and other secular groups reacted strongly. They accused Prime Minister Erdogan—an imam-hatip graduate—of attempting to recruit a cadre of Islamists who could one day staff government ministries and work to undermine Turkey’s secular system from within. After withering criticism from the secular opposition and thinly veiled threats from the officers, Erdogan and AK backed down.

More profound than Erdogan’s caving in on imam-hatip schools, the party has engaged in a rather open exercise in self-abnegation, refusing to identify themselves even as Muslim democrats, much less Islamists. Clearly an effort to avoid raising the ire of the military, AK’s 2002 election platform is notable for the seemingly conscious effort to present the party as just another of Turkey’s right-of-center parties, rather than as the direct descendant of four previously banned Islamist political groups. The headscarf issue—one of the most sensitive cultural issues in Turkey—is emblematic of the party’s repudiation of its Islamist roots. Much to the dismay of the core elements of AK’s constituency, the party leadership has studiously sidestepped demands that the government lift the constitutionally mandated ban on headscarves at universities, government ministries, and the Grand National Assembly.

While there are reservations within the ranks of the officer corps about what the EU ultimately demands—a voluntary compromise of Turkish sovereignty—and suspicions about AK’s true intentions, the commanders have reason to be satisfied. As the self-endowed vanguard of Turkey’s intellectual and social elite, Turkish commanders can only regard the opening of EU accession talks as an inexorable step toward fulfilling Ataturk’s dream of “raising Turkey to the level of civilization”—that of the West. To be sure, this historic development has come with some costs to the military establishment, but they remain the undisputed masters of the system. After all, not only have Turkey’s Islamists strained to avoid confrontation with the military and committed themselves to upholding secularism, but the officers have also retained their historic role as the guardians of the Turkish political order.