The sudden and dramatic ?retirement? of four of Turkey?s five top military commanders has produced two opposite interpretations in the press, both touting this event as a revolution of sorts. In these readings, the retirements either signify the dawning of an era of true Turkish democracy or are a sign of Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan?s, and his ?Islamist? supporters?, catastrophic ascendance. Both of these analyses are partially understandable, yet premature.
Both the dawning-of-democracy analysts and the catastrophic-ascendance analysts assume the retirements mean the end of the Turkish military establishment?s long-standing power. The retirements are a symptom of the decline of Turkish military power, but not the beginning or end of this process.
The decline began not this July but in 2002, when Erdoğan?s AKP narrowly escaped closure by the military-led Constitutional Court after allegations of anti-secular activities. Before the AKP administration, the Constitutional Court would have closed any party out of its favor, as it did with the Welfare and Virtue Parties, but the AKP squeaked by, triumphant if still cautious. In September 2010, the weakening of the military establishment continued, with a constitutional amendment package, approved by referendum, which moved more power from military to civilian courts. This transfer of military to civilian power continues now with an ongoing restructuring process, which will last through in the fall when Turkey is expecting to write a new constitution.
The commanders purposefully aligned their retirements with one symptom of the military decline: the Ergenekon trials, in which the AKP is prosecuting an alleged military plot to topple the government. The Turkish military has historically been given seemingly endless get-out-of-jail-free cards when it comes to government overthrow, making this prosecution?in civilian courts no less?a huge change from the endless string of coups Turkey has experienced since the mid twentieth century.
The commanders, who are of advanced age and used to authoritarian power, certainly disliked these changes, but they also retired because of harsh criticism from the media regarding the Kurdish conflict in the Turkish southeast. This is where the Turkish military spends most of its time, fighting a civil war with the Kurdistan Workers? Party, or PKK, a rebel Kurdish group that sees itself as a necessary response to suppression of the Kurdish identity by the Turkish government. Military service is mandatory in Turkey, but university-educated men serve less time than those with only a high-school degree. Therefore, most of the conscripts fighting in the southeast are less educated, from rural areas?and often Kurdish. In other words, the military is in a drawn-out fight using soldiers who may actually feel closer to the rebels than to the Turkish government. Along with the decline in the generals? political and judicial power, this atmosphere, and the criticism the generals have incurred, contributed to their low morale.
So is this the dawning of democracy? The European Union consistently welcomes the weakening of the Turkish military. It praised the decision by the Constitutional Court not to close the AKP in 2002 and made a constitutional restructuring of the military a condition for Turkey?s EU candidacy. After all, the military may see itself as a defender of the constitution, but it is by no means a democratic institution.
Not so fast, say the catastrophic-ascendance analysts. They fear that the civilians who will take over are only those who follow Erdoğan?s orders, and that the weakening of the military establishment will mean a decline of pluralism, with a replacement of military-led liberal authoritarianism with the boundless rule of the Islamic Right. Although the military commanders retired on their own terms (Erdoğan did not force them, as far as we know), and the weakening of the military has been in line with the development of democracy, without the military Turkey might have developed few of the qualities that leftists like about the country?a positive record on women?s rights and secularism, for example. The military has acted as the guardian of Turkish republican ideals, undemocratic as it may be.
Turkey has serious problems with pluralism. The Kurdish conflict, for example, indicates just how unsettled minority issues are. Press freedoms are also in danger under Erdoğan, and civil society is very weak in the rural areas.
At the very least, the retirements of the four military commanders show that the road to democracy is bumpy. Although the decline of the Turkish military is a necessary step toward a robust constitutional democracy, it does not come without risks. Many don?t trust civil society to take the military?s place as a counterforce to Erdoğan?s AKP.
Now that the days of military-backed constitutionalism are ending, it will be up to liberals and leftists to demand that Turkey develop all of the freedoms necessary to preserve the right of democratic dissent. We should stop wringing our hands about the retirements and give support to those who have the courage to see this as an opportunity to push progressive ideals through democratic channels?and to demand those channels where they do not yet exist.