Istanbul, Turkey – The Turkish military has been a pivotal actor in the political life of modern Turkey, both domestically and abroad, but its role and position in contemporary Turkey have been curbed significantly.
The military began to rise into prominence after the modern republic was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.
With the help of the officer corps, Ataturk converted Turkey into secularised and westernised state.
After his death in 1938, secularism became the dominant ideology, and the generals its sole protector.
“Ataturk and many leaders in the early republic were former officers. The military has always had a significant role in society as a steward of secular values. Although civilians ran the government, the military used to play a leading role in forming the country’s foreign and security policies,” Doruk Ergun, research fellow at EDAM independent think-tank in Istanbul, told Al Jazeera.
Guardians of secularism
As self-declared guardians of Ataturk’s secular legacy, the military remained associated with a tradition of upheaval and history of overthrowing unpopular governments at times of political chaos and economic crisis.
The officer corps staged three coups between 1960 and 1980.
In all the three, the military complained that Islam was becoming too involved in the political sphere.
“Every single of those coups was undertaken by fiercely secular and fiercely pro-Western officers who felt that Turkey’s Western, progressive path was being compromised,” Timur Kuran, a politics and economics professor at Duke University in North Carolina, told Al Jazeera.
The military is completely neutralised at this stage. They're not a factor in Turkish politics.
The rise of political Islam
By the late 1980s, the ideological divide between Turkey’s right and left was coming to an end, paving the way for political Islam to emerge.
In 1997, the Welfare Party, which was the first conservative and religious party in Turkey to win a general election, was forced to resign by the military. The resignation of the party’s founder, Necmettin Erbakan, who was the prime minister, became known as “the post-modern coup”.
In a statement on February 28 that year, the military had warned of a threat to national security caused by Erbakan’s efforts to raise the profile of Islam. Erbakan was forced to resign four months later.
Alican Turk, a former army colonel who was arrested in April 2012 on accusations of involvement in the 1997 “post-modern coup”, told Al Jazeera that people’s trust in the military has diminished over the last 16 years.
Turk spent 14 months in Sincan prison on the outskirts of Ankara before he was acquitted. A total of 103 people were charged in the case, including 61 generals.
Most were acquitted in a six-year trial that was largely seen as an effort by Gulenist prosecutors and judges to target the military with fake evidence.
Gulenists are followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen movement, which the Turkish government has branded a “terrorist” organisation called “FETO”.
Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, was once a strong ally of Erdogan, with his organisation enjoying its golden years during the early years of the AKP.
Similar cases, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer), also saw Gulenists target secular officers.
The Balyoz and Ergenekon trials indicted military officers in the late 2000s over alleged plans to overthrow the government. These trials, which have now been overruled due to falsified evidence, were subsequently blamed on Gulenists in the judiciary.
“The military was damaged through these fake trials. Before 2002, the army was very sensitive and careful when it came to Cemaat [the Gulen movement] and other radical Islamist groups, and it fired anyone linked to these movements but after 2002 that stopped and members of these groups rose in power and increased in number,” Turk told Al Jazeera.
‘When AKP came to power, the military was not pleased’
The AK party, which was formed from the Welfare Party tradition, came to power in 2002 but with a more liberal and pro-EU agenda.
“When the AKP came to power, the military was not at all pleased. They were hoping initially that the AKP would self-destruct, make a mess of things and lose popularity. But the AKP decided, and this was Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s brilliance, to embrace democracy and to stay clear of policies that would threaten the military or move Turkey away from Europe,” Kuran said.
This discourse allowed Recep Tayyip Erdogan to disarm the constituencies in Turkey that instinctively sided with the military against religious conservative groups. He also started campaigning for modernising the constitution, which included the provision for the military’s role in protecting the ideals of the republic.
“Erdogan framed it in terms of becoming more modern, more European. After all, which European country has a constitution that gives its military the right to interfere in civilian politics when it senses certain principles are at stake?” Kuran explained.
The AK party’s liberal discourse enabled the party to win hearts and minds among intellectuals, businessmen and media and was perceived by the West as a compromise between the secular and religious that could see an end to military interventions.
The AK party also introduced reforms that altered the civil-military relations. It rendered the powerful National Security Council a civil institution, brought security expenditures under the civilian control, and freed universities and the media from military inspection – changes that restored the people’s confidence in public institutions.
‘The last coup was quite different’
“The military still played a significant role in Turkish politics after 2002, although not in day-to-day politics over the last five years or so. The balance between the military and the civilian government has become more equal with civilians gaining more power and control over the military,” Ergun explained.
However, in 2007 the military issued a veiled threat about its determination to protect secularism when Abdullah Gul was proposed as president, leading to an election that saw backing for the AK party.
According to Kuran, the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials allowed Gulenist officers to move up the military hierarchy and these officers, together with other opportunists and some secular officers opposed to the AK party, formed the group that Turkey says carried out the 2016 coup attempt.
“The last coup was quite different from the others. With all the others you have officers who are staunchly anti-Islamist, staunchly secular, strongly pro-Western who are leading a movement in a coordinated fashion. The last coup, the failed coup, was not,” Kuran said.
The 2016 coup attempt has been attributed to Gulenists in the military who aimed to undermine the government and carve out their own networks in the government.
Although the actors have changed from secularists to Gulenists, the actors were still from the military.
The 2016 coup failed for various reasons. The country was not facing an economic crisis or political chaos, the attempt lacked societal support, and Erdogan remained popular. It harmed the military badly and offered Erdogan the legitimacy to purge all dissidents.
“The military is completely neutralised at this stage. They’re not a factor in Turkish politics.
“We don’t hear statements from Turkish generals that in any way contradict what the government is doing as was quite common before the Erdogan era,” says Kuran.
“Most people realise that we don’t know the full story, but they feel in all likelihood officers did things they shouldn’t have been doing.”
Relations after the 2016 failed coup
After the 2016 trauma, civil-military relations reached a new level as the officer corps deposited most power into the hands of the government, such as the case of Syria, where the government has a great deal of influence.
Furthermore, the military has gone through internal corrective measures, and it is not the same organisation it was 20 or 30 years ago.
“The army, navy and air force have been brought under direct control of the Turkish Defence Ministry,” Ali Turksen, a former member of Navy Underwater Special Forces and cofounder of the opposition IYI party, said.
“Erdogan has succeeded in shaking up the system and possibly preventing any future coup attempts. About 40 percent of Turkey’s generals and admirals have been dismissed, and they’re capturing Gulenist officers on a near-daily basis.
“Academies and military schools have now been re-opened, but they’re more careful in who they allow to enter,” Turksen added.
In the immediate aftermath of the last coup attempt, the military’s reputation slumped as the vast majority of people saw it as an undemocratic attempt to change politics.
The officer corps is definitely not the Kemalist military that used to shape the political fabric of the country.
“The military leadership and the AKP government are currently on the same page and on very good terms. They see eye to eye on many issues, and they go hand in hand in many regards,” says Ergun.