Time was when Turkey’s powerful army would thunder into the nation’s cities, or simply make plain its refusal to tolerate this policy or that person, and the government of the day would fall. Last Friday the top military brass tried a different tack. General Isik Kosaner, the chief of staff, and the commanders of the army, air force and navy all downed tools and walked off the job. Turkish citizens barely noticed. How are the mighty fallen.
Turkey has undergone a political revolution over the past decade. The rise of new elites, grouped around the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and powered by the dynamism of the religiously observant middle classes of the Anatolian heartland, has displaced the secular establishment built up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic.
The principal casualty of this radical shift in the balance of power has been the military, the self-appointed keeper of the Kemalist flame that formed the backbone of the self-perpetuating Kemalist ruling classes. That did not look like a foregone conclusion when the neo-Islamist AKP first came to power in 2002: suspected by the secular of a hidden agenda, resented by the privileged for its presumption.
At the time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP leader and former mayor of Istanbul, was banned from electoral office by Kemalist judges. Few Turkey experts were betting on his survival. Yet, since becoming prime minister after a by-election in 2003, he has twice won landslides at the polls on a rising share of the vote. And he has brought the army to heel. The stars certainly aligned in Mr Erdogan’s favour, but with his almost preternatural rapport with ordinary Turks, the prime minister has time and again outfoxed the generals.
The end of the cold war, during which the Turkish army, the second-biggest in Nato, was the alliance’s sentinel in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus, downgraded military influence and freed Turkey to re-emerge as a regional and commercial power. Under Mr Erdogan, Turks have seen their per capita income double and their country’s influence burnished.
Kemalist political parties, meanwhile, with their lazy sense of entitlement and reliance on the generals and judges to win back what they kept losing at the ballot box, were eclipsed by the AKP, further dimming the lustre of the military.
The European Union, which made Erdogan’s Turkey a candidate for membership in 2004, was another big engine of change. The army saw in the now-stalled accession talks fulfilment of the European vocation envisaged by Ataturk, while the AKP astutely used the EU – which demanded curbs on military influence in politics – as a shield against the generals.
The critical moment came in 2007 when the high command announced on the army’s website it could not accept Abdullah Gul, then foreign minister, as president, because he had begun his career as an Islamist. Mr Erdogan went to the people, who helped him bury the generals under an avalanche of votes.
Since then, magistrates have uncovered a baroque series of alleged plots against the government, leading to the arrests of hundreds of serving and retired officers. Legal process has been intolerably slow. It may be that Mr Erdogan, seeing his chance to intimidate dissidents, has spread the net too wide. But one in 10 of Turkey’s hitherto overmighty generals is now behind bars and a clear majority of Turks appears to support this.
The current standoff, which the government looks already to have won, follows Mr Erdogan’s refusal to accede to Gen Kosaner’s demands that officers in detention should be promoted as though they were on active service. That seems to be what prompted the generals to abandon the field.
There is further to go in clipping the military’s wings; its Internal Service Law, for example, the legal pretext for the last coup in 1980, still entitles it to intervene in politics. There is much further to go in ensuring Turkey’s new constitution, to replace the army-dictated charter arising out of that coup, contains a full panoply of democratic checks and balances, especially in light of Mr Erdogan’s presidential ambitions and authoritarian bent. But that constraining role is not for the army – not in a modern republic seeking its rightful place in Europe.