30 July 2011

Turkish Army

I was rather surprised to see the "Military Chiefs Resign en Masse" headline on BBC.

In the past such symbolic moves were considered precursors of coup d'etats and given the central role I assigned to Turkey as a regional power with the mission to help solve two of the most intractable regional problems, I was worried that, were these resignations lead to a coup d'etat, I would lose face.

I would, if anyone was reading this blog, that is. Fortunately, no one does. And equally fortunately, I doubt that these announcements would lead to a coup d'etat.

How do I know that?

With a few exceptions, generally Turkish newspapers are loud, colorful, trashy publications which are woefully short on news. Usually, there is either a scantily clad young woman and a gossipy or scandalous news item about her on the front page or something equally gossipy or scandalous about the world of soccer, or football, as it is properly called. The exception to this rule is when something really traumatic or important happens, like a plane crash or an imminent coup d'etat. Then everything else disappears and only that event is presented in breathless prose.

In this instance, Turkish papers reported the resignation as an earthquake but pictures of half naked women and gossipy news items occupied all the remaining spots on their front pages.

Also, as it is a very polarized society, and newspapers are short on news, people get their information from their favorite columnists (there is literally an army of them: some 20+ daily columnists in each newspaper and more weekly or occasional columnists). These columnists use a very peculiar style of writing which makes their column inaccessible to all but the people on their side. That style consists of posing seemingly cryptic questions hinting towards ominous conspiracies. It may be too early but yesterday's papers had very few columnists commenting on the "resignation earthquake" and the comments were very cautious, bordering on neutral.

More substantively, in modern societies, armies are no longer able to overthrow governments. It can still be done in simpler economies (or in command economies like Cuba) but in a complex capitalist system, the army would be out of its depth within days, if not hours, and with the economy collapsing around itself, it would have no choice but get out of power. The Turkish army is also an integral part of the local business classes as it owns a very large non-military industrial complex and it would be one of the first institutions to suffer from such folly.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the fact that, during recent elections, the ruling party AKP received 50 percent of the vote. And this was its third consecutive election and each time, it increased its electoral support. I don't have statistics but, outside of single party regimes, this must be unique feat in the world.

On the other 50 percent, there is a sizable Kurdish population and it would be unthinkable that they would support a coup. The rest, let's be generous and give it 30 percent, is too weak and disorganized for the army to count on even if t was foolish enough to overthrow such a popular government.

The resignation seems to be a protest against the Ergenekon prosecutions which are based on the Sledgehammer allegations. The army is accused of cooking up an internal terrorism plot, with blown up mosques and other carnage to impose martial law or to overthrow government. Turkish version of dolchstosslegende, in other words. 

I personally believe that the Sledgehammer operation was not a seriously considered plan, as I do not think that it is possible to have a military rule (however short-lived) in that society. And I believe the army's business side knows this well and would never allow it. Quite possibly, when it was discussed, they must have put a quick end to it. 

But the scenario was ominous enough (and given the army's past martial law atrocities, believable enough) to provide the government with a legal tool to reduce the power of the military. In that process, they began by taking into custody some low level retired officers and gradually they added active duty officers to that list and now they are after high level active duty officers. Since the investigation has been going on for a couple of years and the trial is likely to go on for quite some time, in effect, the government has been imprisoning whoever it does not like. Besides the members of the military, those undesirables include journalists, academics and some dissidents.

The main point the outgoing Chief of Joint Staff, Isik Kosaner made was the fact that many high level officers who were supposed to be promoted to higher ranks in August (this is an annual process which takes place in August) were hastily taken into custody, just days before their promotion. Kosaner bitterly complained that he was unable to protect his officers and his frequent protests to the Prime Minster were met with indifference. What he means is that the government was not allowing him to make the final decision on successions and promotions and one of the ways they removed his ability to do that was to take specific candidates in custody.

In other words, this is a power struggle between the military and the government and the latter is winning. The government moved quickly to appoint a new commander of the army, who is now the acting Chief of Joint Staff and who will become (in August) the new Chief. They praised the outgoing generals and thanked them for their service. 

And that was that and I doubt that it will go any further.


It is even a more decisive victory than I suggested

The government in Turkey will on Monday start appointing new commanders of the armed forces at a four-day annual military promotions meeting.
It will be the first time a civilian government decides who commands the various armed forces in Turkey.
 This is a huge victory for the government, something that would be unthinkable even a few years ago.
The BBC's correspondent in Turkey, Jonathan Head, says the contest between the armed forces and the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has its roots in political Islam, has now come to a head and Mr Erdogan has won.
He says Mr Erdogan and his ally, President Abdullah Gul, now insist they will have the final say over who commands the military.  

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