A milestone in Turkey’s civilian-military power game

A milestone in Turkey’s civilian-military power game

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a speech condemning the traditional “elite” of Turkey, speaking in the southern city of Kahramanmaraş on Friday. He started with the snobbish stance of the “half-baked” intellectuals in the popular debate over the state-supported theaters. He reiterated that from now on there would be no public theater system, but that the government could sponsor plays at will, preferably those “in line with the values of the people,” while making sure those values will be conservative ones.

Then Erdoğan linked the debate with another one: the painful power game between Turkey’s political and military establishments, which has resulted in a series of coups and interventions in politics over the past five decades. He said “those kinds of so-called intellectuals” dare to criticize the Turkish Armed Forces because they are not attempting to overthrow the elected government anymore. “They have no idea what democracy is about,” Erdoğan said. “But they should understand that the humiliation of people and their choices is over,” thanks to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

That was in reference to a statement issued by the military and the chief of General Staff on Thursday. The statement said that there were those who are trying to provoke the army by insulting the army and its “eternal leader” Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but that they will in no way be successful, and that the army is determined to remained loyal to the Constitution and the parliamentary democracy.

The statement came a after Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel to Erdoğan paid Erdoğan a rather unexpected visit on Tuesday which lasted for more than three hours. It appears that Özel mentioned “provocations” amid the ongoing court cases in which hundreds of retired and on-duty officers, including İlker Başbuğ, a former chief of General Staff, are being tried and arrested on charges of attempting to overthrow Erdoğan’s government.

The Özel statement has been interpreted by the Turkish media as targeting a Bekir Coşkun column published in the Cumhuriyet newspaper and the words of Ümit Kocasakal, the head of the Istanbul bar, mainly criticizing the army for not opposing the government. Well, Coşkun’s column was like a fable, a hypothetical dialogue between a wolf and a pet dog with the name “Pasha,” an Ottoman term meaning “general” that is still in colloquial use, who is doing whatever his master orders. It can be taken as a fact that Özel must have told Erdoğan about his discomfort with the harsh criticism of the army in the pro-government media due to past wrongdoing; one could expect a toning down of criticism of the army in the pro-government press as a result. 

But Erdoğan’s speech on Friday, backing the soldiers against those who want to pull them into politics again could be taken as a milestone on the path toward a European-style relationship between politics and the military.

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