Erdogan Showdown with Generals Shows Advance of Turkey's Democracy

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Adem Altan / AFP / Getty Images

Turkey's outgoing chief of staff General Isik Kosaner, left, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 30, 2010, joined other top military officials in a mass resignation on Friday

To understand the significance of last Friday's mass resignation of Turkey's top military commanders, consider the country's recent history. My generation of university students in the '90s often fled the relentless Mediterranean summer heat to go camping in the mountains, always half-jokingly speculating over whether we would emerge from the wilderness to find tanks on the streets.

We had grown up in the bleak decade following the 1980 military coup that saw thousands arbitrarily jailed, and Turkey always seemed to be in crisis. Politicians bumbled, and the military — NATO's second largest, which had seized power four times in as many decades — cast a long shadow over Turkish society. A tragic ongoing war in the country's southeast against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) only strengthened its hand. As recently as two years ago, an oblique communiqué by the military's top brass would have meant a sleepless night as bleary-eyed pundits sat through all-night TV specials trying to decode its meaning. Reporters outside the military headquarters in Ankara would discuss whether the lights were on and which light meant coup plans might be brewing.

Yet, on Friday, for the first time in Turkey's history, top military commanders walked out on the job in protest of a government with roots in political Islam — and nothing happened. On Monday, I returned from vacation to humid Istanbul and found no tanks on the streets. "Generals?" the airport taxi driver queried. "Oh, them. They walked out," he said. "Other people will have to replace them." He shrugged.

If the generals — the chief of staff along with commanders of the navy, army and air force — had been betting on public outcry, the lack of uproar shows just how far Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has advanced in his struggle to subordinate the military to civilian political leadership. On Monday, Erdogan presided alone over an annual meeting, at which he would normally be flanked by top brass, to determine military promotions. "The era in Turkey when the military made political decisions is over," says leading Hurriyet columnist Cengiz Candar. "This dramatic development is the culmination of a process that has unfolded over the past few years."

Although behind-the-scenes developments relating to Friday's resignations have yet to be disclosed, the generals claimed to be protesting the continued detention of some 250 active and retired officers as a result of an ongoing three-year investigation into an alleged coup plot. Outgoing chief of staff General Isik Kosaner said the ongoing detentions cast the military as a "criminal gang," and that simply being under suspicion precluded many officers from being promoted. In one offshoot of the probe, prosecutors on Friday filed charges against 22 officers, including six generals, accusing them of a "psychological-action plan" that included fake websites and news reports to spread antigovernment propaganda as recently as 2010.

To the military, whose leaders see themselves as guardians of Turkey's secularism, Erdogan's success — the deeply pious former football player was re-elected for a third term in June with 50% of the vote — has realized their worst nightmare, as he has steadily trimmed their powers.

But the Prime Minister's own motivations have also come under scrutiny. Critics have accused the government of using the investigation to suppress dissent, including by locking up journalists. Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, two internationally renowned investigative journalists who had been examining the growing power of Islamist groups within state institutions, were arrested in March and remain behind bars pending charges. Their case was raised with the Turkish government during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Ankara. By far the biggest complaint is the glacial pace of prosecutions — many defendants have yet to appear before a court to defend themselves.

Having demonstrated that the military no longer wields the veto power it once held over Turkish politics, Erdogan will see his own democratic mettle tested in the coming months as he's presented with the opportunity to address such thorny issues as the demand for increased autonomy for the restive Kurdish minority and the task of rewriting the less-than-democratic constitution drawn up by generals after the 1980 coup.

The June elections sent more Kurdish representatives to parliament than ever before. Although Erdogan has snubbed them until now, their presence offers a historic opportunity to finally achieve a political solution to the conflict in the Kurdish southeast. On rewriting the constitution, NGOs and opposition politicians have called on Erdogan to establish a nonpartisan committee, but they fear that he could also push ahead with his own vision. Even after having put the military in its proper place, Turkey's democracy remains a work in progress.