Middle East
6:54 am
Thu August 4, 2011

Turkey Undergoes A 'Silent Revolution'

Politics in Turkey have just undergone a profound shift.

For decades, Turkey's military leaders repeatedly launched coups and other interventions to bring about an end to civilian governments they felt were straying too far from the country's secular traditions.

But with the resignations last week of the top Turkish commanders — including the chiefs of staff of each service branch — civilian authorities have, for the first time in the nation's history, clearly gained the upper hand.

"The military has finally seen that its standing is in free fall," says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They have conceded defeat."

That may be a positive sign of Turkey's maturation. The republic appears to have outgrown its military DNA and the notion that the country was ultimately owned by the army.

But even as it appears to be moving toward a more mainstream model of Western democracy, with firm civilian control, some worry that the scaling back of the military's power means there are no real checks on the power of the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AK Party or AKP.

The AKP, which has Islamic roots, has established its authority over the judiciary and jailed its critics by the dozen — not just admirals and generals, but journalists and people working for civil society organizations as well.

"After a decade, the ruling party now has control of all the levers of power in Turkey," Cagaptay says. "The military was considered the last institution standing that could intervene. Now, the resignations are a sign that the military, too, has snapped."

Turkey's Military Tradition

After World War I, modern Turkey was born out of the ashes of the old Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had led the country's war of independence and became its first president, established Turkey as a secular democracy.

Ironically, Ataturk imposed changes such as creating political parties and abolishing the caliphate, or theocratic Islamic rule, through authoritarian means. Before there was a Turkish republic, after all, there was a Turkish army. Some historians view Turkey as a country that was, at its roots, set up by army officers.

That may be overstating things, but the military has, in fact, taken its role as guardian of Turkey's secular traditions quite seriously.

Since 1960, the army has overthrown top civilian leaders four times for perceived violations of those traditions, whether by putting tanks into the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, the capital, or by issuing a memorandum that led to the bloodless "postmodern coup" of 1997.

A Slow Paradigm Shift

But things have changed over the past decade. Recep Teyyip Erdogan, who has been prime minister since AKP took power in 2002, has successfully challenged the military — most notably through a series of court cases that have landed much of the top brass in jail.

There's not a single four-star general in the Turkish air force, for instance, who has not been charged. Half the country's admirals are in the clink, too, charged with fomenting instability and plotting to overturn the government.

Last Friday's resignations were the "culmination of a process," says Omer Taspinar, a professor of international relations at the National Defense University in the U.S.

"The arrest of active-duty generals last year was a first in Turkish history," he says. "The fact that you had so many admirals and generals in jail was too much for the top commanders to digest."

Given Turkey's past, many may have expected the military to protest — perhaps even to issue another threatening memo. Instead, they remained quiet.

"This was a silent revolution," Taspinar says.

How Times Have Changed

The military's standing with the public has eroded over the years AKP has been in power, notes Cagaptay. The military's approval ratings — which stood at 90 percent back in 2002 — have since dropped to about 60 percent.

That's still respectable, but it's not enough to overcome the canny political moves taken by Erdogan, who received a renewed mandate in June with the AKP's third straight victory in parliamentary elections.

Outside powers had tolerated the series of coups, largely because of Turkey's strategic importance during the Cold War. But the Cold War is long since over. And, in terms of domestic politics, AKP remains highly popular thanks in large part to the country's strong rate of recent economic growth.

"If things are stable and going well, as they have for the last 10 years, I don't think people are interested in seeing a coup and the military stepping in," says Taspinar, who directs the Turkey project at the Brookings Institution. "No one wants a military authoritarian system when the alternative is better."

A Changed Outlook

The straw that broke the military's back was the current season for promotions. The military wanted high-ranking officers who are sitting in jail, but have not been convicted, to be able to move up. Erdogan was having none of it.

Last year, he sat alongside the armed forces chief at the annual meeting deciding on appointments. On Monday, The Associated Press reported, Erdogan sat alone, in a choreographed gesture demonstrating his authority.

Despite the symbolism of that moment and the importance of the military resignations, analysts don't expect any major short-term changes in Turkey's foreign posture. The country will still work with other European nations and the United States on issues such as Libya, Iran and Syria, while having strained relations with Israel.

But the fact that the AKP has put down the main protector of the firewall between religion and the government has made some outsiders nervous.

"If you're a European looking at this, on the one hand you don't want the military overturning a democratically elected government," says Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. "On the other hand, we don't want the Islamists to have an undue influence over politics."

Growing Regional Influence

Turkey has always been a Muslim nation, despite the strictures against the use of Islamic symbols in a political context. No one now expects the imposition of Shariah law or any kind of theocratic rule.

But Turkey's national identity could become more openly Islamist. And its sense of its place in the world is likely to shift to some extent away from the West — where it has been trying for more than a decade to gain membership to the European Union — and toward the Arab world.

Turkey's transition from military rule to democracy has been viewed as a model for countries such as Egypt during the Arab spring. The fact that it's now clear the military has to take orders from civilians, coupled with the country's gradual shift to a nation with a more openly Islamic identity, will only increase Turkey's influence in its immediate neighborhood, Cagaptay suggests.

"This is a real opportunity for a burst of Turkey becoming a more powerful country in the region, through its Islamic identity," he says.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.