Turkey, home to NATO’s second largest army, has made considerable progress in gaining political control of its armed forces in the last decade.
Yet more needs to be done, especially in the form of structural and legislative changes, in order to secure complete democratic control of the armed forces by civilian authorities, experts have said.
The resignations of four top generals a week ago over legal troubles, which landed hundreds of active duty and retired military officers in court, may provide an important opportunity to further eclipsing the extraordinary powers of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The decision of Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner to go into early retirement, together with the commanders of the land, navy and air forces (who were due to retire this month anyway), was certainly a challenge to the government. Yet the anticipation of a crisis from this protest faded away within hours when the government quickly moved to instate a land forces commander who also assumed the responsibilities of chief of General Staff.
The events not only marked the end of the era where the top brass used to push the civilian government to yield to their demands, but also underlined that the military is not the sole determiner of promotions in the upper ranks of the military echelon. The resignations came two days before the annual August meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ), during which the next group of generals was to be determined. The government’s preference for the nominations of flag commanders prevailed over the outgoing chief’s demands, putting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in charge of the military affairs of the country. At the end of the YAŞ meeting, the government shaped the top brass and prevented the promotion of generals who are currently under indictment for crimes against the government.
Ümit Cizre, professor from the Ankara-based Bilkent University, who specializes in civilian-military relations, told Sunday’s Zaman that this year’s YAŞ meeting brought two fundamental issues into the limelight. “For one thing, the latest crisis was managed by the chief of General Staff, the prime minister and the president, indicating that it was a supra-governmental issue. However, as a bureaucratic institution, the TSK is affiliated with the Defense Ministry. This is ironic,” she explained.
Cizre argued that the ministry should not be an extension of military headquarters. “It should conduct the national defense in a democratic manner. For this reason, its status within the public bureaucracy should be downgraded,” she underlined. The second issue Cizre raised was that the format of the YAŞ meeting should also be changed, downgrading its status to “advisory committee.” “In none of the other NATO countries do appointees have a right to vote. The civilians give the order and the military obeys the order,” she said.
Criticizing the way both civilian leaders and military generals meet in YAŞ as well as in National Security Council (MGK) meetings, Cizre said it is not acceptable for civilian leaders to sit at the table with military generals as if all they are equals. “This goes against the spirit of the principle of democratic control of the armed forces,” she stated.
Unlike past YAŞ meetings, in which the prime minister and the chief of General Staff sat together at the head of the table, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat alone at the head of the table this year, which was interpreted as a strong sign of normalization in civilian-military relations in Turkey and as a sign of civilian authority over the military. Cizre describes this as is a positive development but warns that this issue should not be left to the prime minister’s own initiatives. “With a new bill to be passed by Parliament, YAŞ should be redesigned as an advisory committee under the administration of the Defense Ministry. The prime minister can offer his own nominations for the top brass positions through his defense minister,” she noted.
Others share Cizre’s view, pointing to the need for a new legal framework and institutional change, retired military judge Ümit Kardaş emphasizes that to refrain from institutional change in order to reflect the diminished role of the military is the biggest danger for the government. Noting that the Defense Ministry is still weak under current laws, Kardaş says the autonomy of the General Staff still continues. “The General Staff should be attached to the Defense Ministry rather than to the office of the prime minister,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
Kardaş also raises other issues that need to be addressed immediately to curb the military power over politics. “For example, the structural changes should definitely include subjecting the budget of the TSK to civilian audits. What is more, the curriculum in military schools where young cadets are trained must also be changed to have future officers respect the rule of law, believe in democracy and accept the civilian will,” he said, lamenting the fact that he did not see any discussion this year on these issues. “With the absence of institutional change, the process of normalization will not have long-term results,” he cautioned.
Nevertheless, Kardaş is very optimistic given the recent turn of events on the eve of the YAŞ meeting. “What we have seen so far is a struggle for power. In previous YAŞ meetings, there were signals of this. However, we did not see the domination of civilian political authority. This year, with the resignation of the top brass, we made real progress,” he said. Recalling past coups, attempted interventions and military-issued ultimatums, Kardaş argued that the perception of the TSK, which sees itself as the guardian of the regime and as such entitled to design politics, must be changed as well.
“It was understood from the documents uncovered through the ongoing investigations that the armed forces routinely planned such interventions. There is a military tutelage regime in this country because of this reason. But we see that this now changing,” he underlined. Kardaş also evaluated the resignations in that light.
“In democratic systems, if there is a conflict or dispute between the generals and the political authority, the contentious issue mostly focuses on policy differences, especially on external security strategies. Resignation may be a democratic protest for differing on the policy differences. But this was not the case for us. Our generals tried to legitimize their interference into politics and legal matters. This objection does not comply with the role and function of the armed forces in democratic countries,” he explained.
Atilla Sandıklı, a retired colonel and the head of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), a think tank, advocates the idea that Turkey should clearly define the role of the TSK and its mandate in a very transparent way when formulating a new constitution. “It should be in line with modern democratic standards and universal norms,” he underlined, crediting the EU’s role in pushing for reforms in Turkey.
Sandıklı attributes the strong role of the Turkish army to the “cultural heritage of the country.” “Until now the armed forces have acted independently with the purpose of trying to impose its views on the government, and this is slowly changing. We are seeing the final changes of this process in the actions before and during YAŞ meetings,” he said during an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. He also asked for stronger supervision by Parliament on the military budget. “Just as Parliament has budgetary control over the other agencies in the state, it should have the same with the TSK as well,” he said, lamenting the lack of expertise both in the government and in Parliament over military affairs. “If the civil authority does not have experts working in this field, you automatically delegate your authority to the military. In fact this is what happened in the past,” he argued.
Sandıklı further claimed that some sort of autonomy for the TSK is needed to deflect the view that the army is acting under the influence of one political party. “From a certain point onwards, the TSK should have its own autonomy. At the level of the generals, however, the alignment with the political leaders may be necessary because they have to work together in harmony. This is where we are heading now,” he explained.
In addition to YAŞ, some experts point to the need to overhaul the MGK as well as the military justice system. Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Faik Tarımcıoğlu, a former military prosecutor and judge and an ex-Motherland Party (then-ANAP, now ANAVATAN) deputy, underlined that the MGK, acting like a shadow government, must be restructured and that the Military High Court of Administration should be abolished.
He argued that there was a two-headed system in Turkey, one headed by the chief of General Staff through MGK and the other by the prime minister. “One is appointed and the other was voted in by the people and approved by a vote of confidence in Parliament,” he said, adding that the June 12 elections, during which the ruling party picked up 50 percent of the vote, marked the end of military tutelage in this country. Recalling the controversial decisions taken by the Military High Court of Administration that complicated YAŞ proceedings last year, Tarımcıoğlu said it is time to end the two-headed judicial system in Turkey. “This year we did not experience such difficulties, meaning that Turkey is on the path to normalization and that civilians are gaining control of the armed forces,” he added.
It appears the government has seized an important opportunity to accelerate democratic reforms in Turkey by further consolidating the civilian democratic forces’ control over military affairs, but the institutionalization of this trend remains weak to this day. The real test lies with whether or not the government will be able to implement solid legislative reforms to make these changes permanent.