In Turkey today more than 400 generals, admirals and other officers, both serving and retired, are in jail charged either for responsibility in past coups or recent coup attempts to oust elected governments. Some have already been sentenced to long prison terms. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the main target of the coup attempts of the last 10 years, has been complaining for some time that mass detentions have been adversely affecting the morale of the military and that it has become difficult to find officers left to appoint to command positions. He demands that the trials proceed without continued detentions. He has said that “history will not condone” the arrest of former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ on charges of being the “head of a terrorist organization.” And he recently paid a visit to retired four-star Gen. Ergin Saygun, sentenced to 18 years, at the hospital where he underwent heart surgery.
Erdoğan's position on the issue has divided the ranks of those who favor an end once and for all to the political role of the military and consolidation of the authority of elected governments. According to some, Erdoğan, who wants to change the system of government to a “Turkish-style” presidential one to bolster his grip on power, is seeking full reconciliation with the military he no longer sees a threat. Others support the position of Erdoğan and argue it is time to reconcile with the old Kemalist military guard, which no longer wields any power.
My position remains unchanged. I strongly support that those responsible for both successful and attempted coups are called to account. I believe, however, that only the leading figures need be prosecuted, and that the long detention periods should not turn into punishment. I am also aware of the fact that there are serious complaints about violations of the rights of defendants, which needs to be corrected.
Turkey has surely fallen short of consolidating democracy, both in terms of establishing full respect for the authority of elected governments on the one hand and for basic rights and freedoms of citizens on the other. But the country may be better positioned today than previously towards democratic consolidation. There have so far been two main challenges to the authority of elected government. One arises from putschism among the hard-line Kemalists, and the other from violent dissent by Kurdish nationalists. There are increasing signs that the vast majority of the people are fed up with both.
People in Turkey have been supportive of rule by elected government ever since the introduction of multiparty politics. That is why no military junta has been able to hold power for long. It is also clear today that the vast majority is opposed to the military intervening in politics. It may be said that the vast majority of the military too is aware as never before that the political role it played has not only tarnished the integrity of the institution but also hampered it from fulfilling its professional duties properly. It may also be said that both Turks and Kurds demand an end to violence arising from the suppression of Kurdish identity. Kurds are aware as never before that peaceful politics rather than violence helps achieve democratic rights. That is why we may be closer than ever to the end to violence in the Kurdish question.
If these observations are correct, it may be argued that nothing less than a sea change in political culture is at hand. The necessity of consolidating it by adopting a civilian and democratic constitution, however, still has to be addressed. Turkey today needs a constitution and laws that put a definitive end to the military acting as a state within the state, and that secure democratic rights and freedoms of citizens irrespective of religion and ethnicity. The country is, in the face of looming external threats, also in need of national reconciliation. Measures to enable the rank-and-file of those involved in military coups and in the armed insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to lead normal lives and embrace democracy will have to be considered.