Undoing military coups in Turkey

Undoing military coups in Turkey

All attention in Turkish politics these days is focused on the Kurdish issue, but other important developments are taking place as well – especially behind the doors of the Parliamentary Constitution Conciliation Commission, which is tasked with drafting a new charter.

According to an agreement reached between the four parties that are present in Parliament, and who thus can join the commission, no official announcements will be made on the work until it gets completed. But a consensus reached by all four parties on two important items on the same subject that was written down in the minutes of the meetings has been leaked to the press offices of the Parliament. The Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) in the government and opposition parties, namely, the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is focused on the Kurdish problem, have agreed to bring the chief of General Staff out from being directly under the prime minister and link him to the defense minister.

This might be hard to understand for those looking at Turkey from outside since, in many countries, the chief of staff is already under the Defense Ministry in accordance with the natural flow of modern democracies, including the Western alliance NATO, of which Turkey is also a member. But this has been the situation since the first of a series of “Cold War” military coups in Turkey on May 27, 1960. In the Constitution imposed by the military regime through a public vote, the military was taken from the responsibility of the Defense Ministry (which had been the case even before the Republic was formed in 1923) and tied to the president in certain offices and to the prime minister in others as a symbol ensuring that the military would not take orders from politicians elected by popular vote despite the constitutional suggestion that they should. So, the chief of General Staff has been number five in the state protocol, right after the president, parliamentary chairman, prime minister and the head of the Constitutional Court; then comes the main opposition leader and other members of the Cabinet. Ultimately, the top general had clear symbolic superiority over the defense minister in a way that everyone could understand who the boss was. That de facto superiority was among the factors which enabled two other coups in 1971 and 1980; whenever politicians did something wrong, the military was there to be the savior of the Turkish nation.

There was another mechanism established by the 1961 Constitution to secure military access to the top levels of political decision-making mechanisms. That is the National Security Board (MGK) and its Secretariat. Strengthened further following the 1980 coup by the 1982 Constitution, the MGK was a board chaired by the president and had four politicians and five soldiers sitting on two sides of a long table. The prime minister, as well as the foreign, interior and defense ministers, had the same power as the chief of staff and the Army, Navy and Air Force commanders, as well as the commander of the gendarmerie. The situation was changed in 2003 following the advent of AK Parti rule, as the justice minister and deputy prime ministers were also added to the board to enhance the civilian presence.

Now, the four parties of the Constitution Commission have also agreed to end the MGK’s status as a constitutional body and downgrade it to an advisory body to the executive power. Perhaps it’s not as symbolic as giving the chief of General Staff back to the defense minister, but this move will be an important step toward redefining the relations between politics and the military in Turkey on behalf of a better democracy.