Who is the winner of the extended standoff between the government and the military over appointments to the top echelons of the army? After a deeply suspenseful week, it must be said, with slight caution, that a minor but significant tectonic shift occurred in the ever-so-sensitive relations between those elected and those appointed.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to have entered the annual meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) with the same sense that has dominated his general approach to the commanders in the past year: mistrust. The reason for his mood was obvious; persistent reporting by the press -- fed by leaks from within the high command -- since the last national elections has shown that the high command acted in secrecy, often refusing to address the public at all in direct and honest institutional responses, or, at best, taking side routes to clarify questions that arose as a result of the revelations.
More importantly, all attempts to build trust were destroyed by allegations that some parts of the “headquarters” were until very recently engaged in clandestine political activity to weaken the ruling party and the work of its government. The clouds of suspicion never dispersed before Erdoğan’s eyes about obstacles to establishing normal relations.
The mistrust has led to different behavior than before: He took part in the YAŞ meetings with the determination that it was time to use powers granted to the civilian government to assert its will on choosing the commanders it wants to work with. These powers more often than not had remained on paper, but were never fully applied by the civilian predecessors. In this sense, it was a groundbreaking act.
For the military, always keen on its privileges and its self-declared “record” of interfering in political affairs, it was yet another frontline battle to keep the institution as it had been: autonomous, closed to civilian scrutiny, largely secretive and strictly defensive about its “homemade” appointment designs deep into the future. Yet, the predominant mood among the top generals could not be described as self-assured; some of them were self-conscious about the state of the institution as harmed and questioned in the eyes of the public. The more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to implement the tough rhetoric as well as the means to “keep the civilians away.”
As a colleague recently put it in his analysis, the confrontation in the tense YAŞ meetings, day after day, showed that a shaken and stirred top military had repeated the erratic behavior that caused it great harm in the form of an e-memo on April 27, 2007.
This time, again, obviously ill-advised, top commander İlker Başbuğ chose the flawed path of attempting to create a deadlock by insisting on appointing Gen. Hasan Iğsız as land forces commander, defying Erdoğan’s will. The will, Başbuğ refused to acknowledge, was based on a constitutional right given to the prime minister. Complicating things even further, a replacement considered a midway solution ended badly when Gen. Atilla Işık suddenly declared his early retirement. Was this act the result of the top command “persuading Işık” to destroy Erdoğan’s “game plan”? Persistent allegations say it is, but we cannot be certain.
Was the “resistance” of the generals mainly driven by Başbuğ’s personal concern that he might be implicated in the ongoing trials -- for example, the one about the extrajudicial killing of Kurds in the early ‘90s under his command -- when he retires at the end of August? Even if this were the case, it still exposes the flawed nature of the collective act, as much as it did when the entire corps of officers -- 101 of them -- “disappeared” in order not to be interrogated by civilian law enforcement in the ongoing Sledgehammer case.
From whichever angle one approaches it, this was a staged act bordering on absurdity, displaying an institution in despair. In other words, the “crisis” was not actually about the confrontation between the government and the army, but the top echelons of the army itself.
The end result has been an encouraging one. Despite tensions, Turkey’s fragile system passed yet another test of durability, as it became clear that the elected can -- and hopefully will -- prove that it is the power of the vote that defines who will decide on the appointments in the bureaucracy and -- again, hopefully -- restore harmony within the state, and not vice versa. Furthermore, what took place has also become a lesson for the militarist segments of the press, which now realize that the days of myth-building around the military are nearing their end.
There remains only one blurred point, and this is whether the generals have come to the realization that their institution truly needs reform and adaptation to the realities of the world today.