Don’t Turn The Turkish Army Into A Political Tool

Turkey has a history of coups. Whoever wins the election must prevent politicization of the military.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in Ankara, January 12, 2015.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in Ankara, January 12, 2015. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

As Turkey once again spirals toward authoritarianism, the June 24 election could be a turning point in relations between soldiers and civilians — a worrying development in a country that has been plagued by coups and military interventions almost every decade since 1960. The most recent botched coup attempt on July 15, 2016 had significant consequences for the Turkish armed forces. While the post-coup period has been marked by drastic security sector reforms, there has also been politicization within the ranks of the military.

The high command’s involvement in the current election campaign has already become a point of debate. On June 2, Lt. Gen. Ismail Metin Temel, the Second Army commander who led Turkey’s military operations in Syria earlier this year, cheerfully applauded Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the president mocked the main opposition party’s candidate, Muharrem Ince, in a televised public event. Ince responded by condemning Temel’s behavior and pledged to rip off his epaulettes. Ince was likely trying to remind voters of the perils of politicization in the officer corps and emphasize the need to keep the army out of politics, something Erdogan himself called for after the 2016 coup attempt.

The armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, has also displayed his allegiance to Erdogan. Akar and the presidential spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, allegedly visited former President Abdullah Gul in late April, to convince Gul, who was at the time considered the strongest potential rival to Erdogan, not to run in the election. This military intervention in the democratic process won Akar points for loyalty but it was an affront to democratic norms and extremely risky considering the troubled history of civil-military relations in Turkey. Ince, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader, condemned Akar for involving the military in politics and made clear that he would not work with him if he wins.

These two incidents reveal that the Turkish military leadership is having trouble adapting to the new presidential system, in which the head of the state, unlike before, maintains his party affiliation. In the eyes of the public, however, the high command’s behavior has reinforced the view that the top brass is taking sides. Involving the military in election debates is detrimental to democracy, especially in a country like Turkey with a history of coups. In the widely feared worst-case scenario, there could be nationwide social and political strife if Erdogan loses the election and is unwilling to relinquish power. Such a situation may encourage Turkish officers to step in as they did in 1960, 1971, and 1980. This could lead to yet another troubled chapter in Turkish civil-military affairs, which, like the trauma of past coups, could plague Turkish democracy for decades to come.

[Elsewhere on Foreign Policy, Turker Erturk and Selim Sazak argue that Erdogan is fighting a military battle in order to win a political one — by bombing barren mountains in Iraq]

Turkish politics and the worldview of military officers are quite different today than in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, the military — which used to identify with staunchly secular values and see itself as the guardian of Kemalism — was comfortable intervening to preserve secular order. That attitude has gradually disappeared since the early 2000s. Today, by contrast, most officers accept that the military’s place is outside of politics and look unfavorably on intervention, a view that significantly diminishes the possibility of a coup. For this reason, the recent political attitudes of prominent military figures like Akar and Temel have caused discomfort.

In 2016, when a group of rebellious officers attempted to stage a coup d’état, there was widespread resistance to the putschists by many soldiers, which led to infighting in the military. Although the coup attempt failed, it revealed that the spirit of putschism remains and that Turkish officers could quickly shift their stance in the event of nationwide unrest. Bringing the military back into political debates during this highly critical election period only helps to revive this threat.

Regardless of the election outcome, the next president will have to deal with a traumatized army and the question of how to rebuild it. Since 2007, the Turkish military has experienced one of the most profound institutional traumas in its history. It lost thousands of qualified senior personnel, including many high-ranking generals — first between 2007 and 2013 in show trials on charges of coup plotting, spying, or terrorism, and later in the aftermath of the botched coup in 2016 for links to the Gulen movement, which Erdogan accuses of orchestrating the putsch.

Furthermore, many promising junior and middle-ranking officers voluntarily left or were forcibly purged from the military during this period. Developments since the 2016 coup attempt have hit the Turkish armed forces even harder. In addition to the grave personnel deficiency, ongoing purges have put unbearable pressure on Turkish service members’ morale.

The government introduced numerous reforms with the goal of putsch-proofing the military immediately after the 2016 coup attempt. These reforms included overhauls of the judicial, health, and education systems as well as a redesign of the military command structure and its relationships with the government. Pro-government media portrays this process as a revival of the Turkish army through a return to “local and national” values. Critics are concerned that these reforms only politicize the military and seek to transform it into a partisan force loyal to the president. Over the past two years, there have been numerous allegations that political affiliation, ideology, and personal ties matter more than merit — especially in recruitment practices, officer promotions and assignments, and in awarding defense contracts.

If Erdogan is reelected and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) maintains its majority in parliament, he will further strengthen his control over the military. Indeed, Erdogan will possess an authority over the military that no other leader has enjoyed since the early 1950s. Many are concerned that Erdogan may use this opportunity to transform the military into a guardian force for his one-man regime. Erdogan’s patronage over the high command, his ties with the defense industry, and his unusual militarist attitude since 2015, which has included appearances in camouflage drill uniforms and frequent visits to military bases, have only intensified these concerns.

However, Erdogan’s authority over the military is not unchallenged. He has already made several concessions to groups within the security establishment. Most important, Erdogan’s control over the military after the coup attempt relies in part on his alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the left-wing Patriotic Party (Vatan), which have a significant influence on nationalist-leaning officers. If he ignores or tries to do away with these groups and their extensions in the military, which may require a new cycle of purges, there could be a backlash.

If Erdogan loses, a transition toward a balanced and functional civil-military relationship seems possible, but it would require an inclusive and conciliatory approach. Considering the wide-ranging participation from the different ends of the political spectrum and the considerable presence of veterans, especially in the CHP and the Good Party (IYI), an opposition coalition could build a more representative military and lay the foundations for a healthy relationship between the military and civilians.

The CHP’s candidate, Ince, has already made it clear that rebuilding institutions and merit-based recruitment and promotion in the state bureaucracy will be his top priority. The IYI candidate, Meral Aksener, has also suggested a period of reconciliation. She has received wide-ranging support from soldiers and cadets discharged after the botched coup, as well as their families. However, the biggest pitfall for Ince and Aksener will be the diehard secular-nationalist groups within their parties that could lead them to fall into a self-destructive trap of infighting and ideological extremism which has been the abiding problem of Turkish politics.

Furthermore, if the opposition wins, there will be a deep rift between the CHP and IYI, on one hand, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) on the other. The HDP’s clashes with the security establishment over conflicts with Kurds in southeastern Turkey, Iraq, and Syria and any future opposition coalition’s need to cooperate with HDP deputies in the new parliament could cause significant complications.

There has always been a fine line between regime guardianship and putschism in the Turkish military. These tendencies have plagued Turkish democracy for decades. The next president should avoid falling into the same trap and turning the military into a guardian force once again. An army that serves only to protect Erdogan’s conservative worldview or is characterized solely by a dogmatic secular-nationalist ethos may seem safe to each side in the short term. Yet, as Turkish history has repeatedly proved, it fails to keep the officers out of politics in the long run.

For the first time since the early years of the Turkish Republic, civilian politicians have an opportunity to build an army that is democratic and representative in its views, design, demographic composition, and attitude. Turkey’s next president must not sacrifice this chance by transforming the military into a tool of partisan warfare.

Ozgur Ozkan is a doctoral candidate at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and a fellow at the department of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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