Erdogan vs the Generals:  Turkey’s Political Future in the Balance

Erdogan - Generals

The ongoing clash between the Erdogan government and the military brass has spotlighted longstanding tensions in Turkey’s political and social culture and even has some wondering whether a military coup remains a possibility in a country with one foot in the West and one in the East.  Thankfully, early signs point to a victory for secular rule.

Spiegel‘s Daniel Steinvorth wonders whether Ergodan is strong enough to win this fight.

Turkey has almost become accustomed to news like that. Images of raids and arrests of presumed conspirators against the government have been flickering across television screens for more than two years now. But in the most recent police operations on Monday and Friday, the targets were not, as in the past, obscure figures from the right-wing nationalist scene. This time investigators are taking on some of the highest-ranking generals of recent years, the self-proclaimed "guardians" of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

There have been four military coups in Turkey since 1960, and since the arrests many Turks have been wondering if the army would strike back. Had Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone too far?

At the moment, however, it doesn’t seem as if the government is the least bit intimidated by the army. Erdogan continues to rule the country unchallenged. In fact, it is more the army that seems nervous. When he heard of the arrests, the Turkish army’s chief of staff, General Ilker Basbug, immediately canceled a trip to Egypt. Meanwhile, the prime minister, who was on a trip to Spain, remained cool. "The judiciary is doing its work," he commented.

In fact, so far Feb. 22 marks the culmination of a power struggle between the conservative Islamic Erdogan government and the secular military in Turkey, possibly even a preliminary victory for Erdogan. "The untouchables have been touched!" the pro-government daily newspaper Zaman wrote in jubilation. "An operation without precedent in the history of the republic," the newspaper Sabah commented. Erdogan has so far managed to survive all attempts by the military and the courts to drive him out of office and is now in his strongest position in a long time.

Indeed, as Steinvorth points out, "The European Union, too, ought to be pleased. Hasn’t it called upon the Turkish government for years to finally curtail the power of the military?"

This is all good news, no?  But there is history:

But if the Kemalist elite truly relented, it would the first time in the history of the republic. In fact, retaliatory measures already seem to be taking shape. For months, the Kemalists in the judiciary system are believed to have been preparing for a new trial with the intention of banning Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, 59, Turkey’s chief public prosecutor, is making sure that the word gets around. "The parties can sense whether or not they will be banned," he predicted in early January.


For the generals, much of what Erdogan has done is nothing short of an assault on the foundations of modern Turkey. He eliminated the notorious state security courts, allowed the Kurds to use their own language, pledged to resolve the dispute with Greece over Cyprus, and even had a draft constitution written up that would subject the military to civilian control.

But what could the military do to turn the tide? The generals quickly recognized that the legal and political tools for removing Erdogan were limited and that attempting to acquire power the old-fashioned way was no longer an option these days. The reputation of the Turkish army was on the line. "The days when the army would stage a coup are gone," General Ilker Basbug conceded.

This certainly seems to be the case. Indeed, all indications are that Ergodan is winning.  Sabrina Tavernise of NYT:

The detention of top military officers in Turkey last week was nothing less than a quiet piece of history. The military, long considered untouchable in Turkey, was pushed from its political pedestal with startling finality.

But, in the very next breath, she asks the question on many of our minds:

The moment, years in the making, was more whimper than bang. But it still raises an existential question for this NATO member: What sort of country will Turkey be?

The question goes to the very heart of modern Turkey, a Muslim democracy whose military was a potent force in the country’s political life for most of its 86-year history. Its strictly secular ideology permeated all aspects of public life, including the education system, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The military, long considered the ultimate guardian of that secularism, has overthrown elected governments to protect it.


Turkey is moving into uncharted territory, causing deep anxiety among millions of secular Turks who fear that the country’s domineering prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a former Islamist who won 47 percent of the vote in the last election and now controls many of the country’s institutions — will trample their rights.

That worry deepened Monday, when the Turkish authorities made two more controversial arrests — of an active duty general and a state prosecutor who had investigated Islamic networks, Turkey’s Anatolian News Agency reported.

How Turkey resolves this identity crisis will reverberate well beyond its borders. The country has the second largest army in NATO after the United States. It is strategically placed, with the former Soviet Union to the north and the Middle East to the south. It is a candidate for membership in the European Union. Decades of growth have made it the seventh largest economy in Europe.

For his part, Erdogan is being quite careful to couch this as the rule of law, not a secular-religious or military-civilian turf war. Marc Champion for WSJ:

Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey on Tuesday fought back against efforts to portray the recent arrests of dozens of senior military officers as part of a struggle between his Islamic leaning government and the country’s secular establishment, saying it was part of building a normal democracy.

Mr. Erdogan said the week of arrests of alleged coup-plotters, a group that included admirals and generals, was not an act of political revenge. He also said he had been misunderstood when he recently appeared to tell Turkish newspapers they should fire columnists who in his view misrepresent events.

Many in the country perceive the arrests as a crackdown by Mr. Erdogan’s government on a secular establishment that long suppressed religious conservatives such as himself.

"We do not seek political revenge," Mr. Erdogan told parliamentarians from his ruling Justice and Development party, Anadolu Ajansi, Turkey’s state-run news agency reported. Instead, he said, the government was trying to apply the law and improve Turkey’s democratic institutions in line with requirements for joining the European Union.

As Thomas Barnett observes, "the effective processing of such ‘crises’ is a hallmark of a great power."  Thus far, Erdogan is surprising many of us by his deft handling of the matter.  Let’s hope it continues.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Reuters Pictures.

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