Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
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ccTLD .tr
Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

The Role of the Military in Turkish Politics and European Union Membership Negotiations

By Çağrı Yıldırım

The role of the military in Turkish politics is the central question in the country’s European Union membership process, since one of the crucial political factors stipulated by Brussels for obtaining full membership has been the democratic control of the military.

In order to achieve this ambitious aim, a dramatic reform process for democratic control has been launched. Under the AKP government, the power of the army in Turkish politics has dramatically diminished since 2002. Over the past two years, a number of officers and retired generals have been arrested in connection with the so-called “Ergenekon” case. Prosecutors accuse the network of planning to create chaos through a serious of bloody provocations, thus justifying a coup against the AKP government.

On the other hand, the Turkish general staff denied these accusations. As a result, there is an ongoing power struggle between Erdoğan’s government and the Turkish military. So, in spite of this move by the government, there are serious difficulties in terms of establishing full civilian control over the military due to the strong position of the Turkish military in politics.

The Military and the State: the Ottoman Legacy

The legacy of military involvement in Turkish politics goes back to Ottoman times. The military played a key role in the history of the Ottoman Empire, since it could extend its territory by having a strong army. Toward the end of the empire, the state’s modernization process was driven by military concerns.

The evolution of the army commenced through the establishment of institutions developed according to Western models, in which a new generation of reformist officers appeared. These officers began to see themselves as the vanguard of enlightenment. They pioneered the political modernization by leading the 1876 revolution and the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The legacy of military intervention appeared through these revolutions in which the armed forces played a leading role. These interventions brought about new reforms, which changed significant aspects of the political and social system.

The Role of the Military after the Creation of the Kemalist Republic

After the First World War, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) emerged as the country’s political and military leader. He and other generals transformed the Ottoman Empire into a modern nation-state. In other words, Turkey’s modernization process was again led by the military.

In the first year of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal sought to exclude the army from open involvement in party politics. In order to achieve this, a law was passed in 1923 which obliged serving officers who were elected to parliament to resign from the army. The aim of Mustafa Kemal was not only to prevent the military from exercising direct political influence, but also to protect the military from the everyday struggles of the political arena. However, Ataturk’s removal of the army from politics was never quite complete, because he also saw the role of army as the guardian of the secular republic.

As a result, the army has since then felt a responsibility for the protection of the principles of the Kemalist republic. When it has felt that the republic and its principles to be threatened, the army has in the past taken responsibility for its protection. This principle was written into the Turkish Armed Services Internal Service Code. It states that “the duty of the armed forces is to protect and safeguard Turkish territory and the Turkish Republic as stipulated by the Constitution.” Three interventions have been justified on this legal basis.

Thus, the current position of the military in Turkish politics is the product of a long-term process. The army sees itself as a “guardian” of the Republic and its principles. These characteristics of the military, however, have also caused a dilemma for Turkey-EU relations, as the EU’s principles are completely opposed to military involvement in politics. The reasons why the European Union has been pushing Turkey to reform its civil-military relations are specified in the Copenhagen criteria, which comprise of three distinct criteria: political, economic, and those related to the obligations of the EU membership.

The Changing Role of the Military following EU Reforms

The political criteria require the implementation of institutional stability, complete freedom of expression, the entrenchment of human rights, and respect and protection of minorities. Although the democratizing of civil-military relations are not directly mentioned in the Copenhagen criteria, the military as an institution should be subordinate to the political criteria. Following the acceptance of Turkey as a candidate country in 1999, Turkey agreed to the fulfilment of the Copenhagen political criteria in order to start accession negotiations. As a result, the democratizing of civil-military relations has become one of the most important issues in the overall reform process, since one of the most important conditions of the political criteria for Turkey’s full membership is the democratic control of the military.

After the acceptance of Turkey as a candidate country, the main criticism of the accession partnership document, annual reports and progress reports on Turkey concerned the perceived lack of democratic control over the country’s military. The main criticisms of these documents were generally in regards to the institutional aspect of democratic control. In this respect, the status of the Chief of the General Staff under the prime minister, the role of the National Security Council in Turkish political life and the lack of an effective civilian control over the military budget constitute main reform areas.

All of these required reforms have been outlined in official EU documents, namely the Accession Partnership Documents and Regular Reports. According to these reports, Turkey’s reform process in civil-military relations can be divided into four parts: the transformation of the role and composition of the National Security Council; the transparency of the defense budget; the removal of the military representatives from the civilian boards; and an amendment concerning military courts.

Reforms Undertaken: From the National Security Council to Military Courts

Firstly, the position of the National Security Council in politics was one of the main impediments in relations with the EU. The NSC was established after the 1960 Military Intervention in order to legitimize the place of the army in politics. Its power was then enlarged after the 1980 Military Intervention. The new council of the NSC is composed of the president of the republic, the prime minister, the chief of the general staff, the ministers of foreign affairs, internal affairs, and defense, as well as the top military commanders. Thus, the military was able to make itself politically more active and effective.

However, in the process of moving towards EU membership, the power of the NSC has been restricted. With the modification of Article 118 of the constitution, the role of the NSC was diminished. According to the 1982 Constitution, the NSC was responsible for the drafting of national security and foreign policy. With this amendment, it became solely an advisory body. Furthermore, the composition of the NSC has been altered, with an increase in the number of its civilian members. Moreover, the post of The Court of Auditors has been authorized to audit accounts and transactions of all types of organizations, including state properties owned by the armed forces. With the introduction of these reforms, Turkey’s elective representatives became more effective in making the armed forces more accountable.

The removal of military representatives from the civilian boards is the third area of the reform process. As part of the 6th Harmonization Package of 19 July 2003, the NSC representative on the supervisory Board of Cinema, Video and Music was removed; similarly, military representatives on the Higher Education Board and the Higher Broadcasting Board were also withdrawn. As a result, progress on EU reforms have prepared the way for a diminished military influence on the policies of educational, arts and broadcasting institutions.

The final area of the reform process concerns the amendments of military courts. According to the Accession Partnership Documents, the European Commission’s main criticism was of the excessive power of State Security Courts that deal with political crime. The Commission also had doubts about the impartiality of judges, since one in three State Security Court judges were military judges. This was the only example in Europe in which civilians can be tried, at least in part, by military judges. For these reasons, the legal basis for the existence of State Security Courts has been removed. Moreover, the trial of civilians in military courts was abolished as part of the 7th Harmonization Package. Eventually, State Security Courts were totally abolished in 2004.

Therefore, in regards to EU demands, Turkey has made reforms in all the area mentioned. The important question, then, becomes the extent to which these reforms have been successful in restoring full civilian control over the military. Through the EU membership process, civil-military relations have become more democratized. In other words, the autonomy of the military in Turkey has been diminished by means of EU reforms. As a result, the NSC is no more an executive body, and has only an advisory function; the transparency of the defense expenditures has been enhanced; and the function of the military court has been limited.

However, there are still perceived problems regarding the position of the military. Firstly, military representatives continue to make their views known on a variety of topics, through speeches, their influence on the media, and through formal declarations. Most of the time, statements by the military are perceived as warnings to the civilian government. During the presidential election in 2007, the army was able to influence politics. As the generals objected to Abdullah Gül, the AKP candidate, they placed a message on the defense ministry’s website, threatening intervention. This “e-coup” caused political chaos in Turkey, which resulted in a new general election.

The second problem is that the chief of the Turkish general staff is still directly responsible to the prime minister, contrary to EU practices. These unchanged positions of the military indicate that the political influence of the military remains, and that civil power in Turkey is still far from exercising full control over the military.

There is no doubt that EU candidacy has contributed to the democratization of civil-military relations in Turkey. According to the last EU Progress Report on Turkey’s accession, progress has been made regarding civilian control of the army. The military court’s competencies have now been limited through the constitutional package. Moreover, the decisions of the Supreme Military Council are now open to judicial review.

However, there are certain limits to its impact because of the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and the Kemalist Republic, and this will probably remain the case in the near future. Full civilian control over the military can only be maintained with the full implementation of recent reforms, which, as the Regular Reports on Turkey consistently indicate, are crucial to the democratization process.