Howard Eissenstat writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
Turkey’s Generals Resign: Thoughts on a New Chapter in Turkish Politics
For most of my professional life I have argued that one of the chief flaws of Turkish democracy was the overwhelming influence of its military. It is for this reason I have been largely sympathetic to the efforts of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) at pushing the military out of politics and, as the Turkish saying has it, back into the barracks. This process seems to have come to an end this past week, when top-ranking Turkish generals resigned in protest against what they consider ill-treatment. No crisis ensued, no coup was staged. Effectively, nothing happened: the government selected new generals, security meetings continued as scheduled, and people went on with their business. Although the resignations certainly received press attention in Turkey, they have not caused an uproar. All in all, Turks are far more concerned about the recent scandal in their national soccer league.
I wish I could feel happier about all this, but I don’t. It is not that there is much to miss about the Turkish military’s meddling in Turkish politics. Beyond the coups, the Turkish military has created an undemocratic constitution, consistently pushed for a stupidly hard line against Turkey’s Kurds, engaged in extra-judicial killings and terrorism, allocated for itself unseemly wealth, worked to create an obscenely militaristic popular culture, and generally treated the country’s citizens as slightly backward children, in constant need of guidance.
The problem is that the absolutely healthy process of asserting civilian control is being undertaken by a political party that has shown an unhealthy willingness to politicize the bureaucracy and a marked intolerance for dissent. To give the AKP their due, they have won their elections primarily because of a winning formula: tolerance for Islam in the public sphere, effective government, a relative lack of corruption, good services, and a keen ear for national trends. The Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, is brusque, arrogant, and intolerant, but he is also smart, hardworking, deeply patriotic, and perhaps the most natural, instinctive politician Turkey has seen in a half century. Domestically and globally, Turkey has become, under AKP leadership, an important regional power, economically, culturally, and politically. The claim that they are Islamist (or even, as so many journalists describe them as “mildly Islamist”), is not supportable. After nearly a decade in power, there is nothing about their rule that fits with even the broadest definitions of an Islamist agenda. It is true that they are clearly devout Muslims and that this colors their worldview and their attitude to some issues both domestic (headscarves) and international (Israel), but this hardly qualifies as evidence of a call to sharia or traditional Islamic law. Claims on the wacky right notwithstanding, the AKP has no intention of re-establishing a Caliphate on the Bosphorus.
It isn’t quite that the AKP is undemocratic. They clearly believe in elections. But they tend to view elections in the same way as other large, successful political machines do: as a means of connecting with the base and distributing benefits, but not meant as a real check on their power. Although the AKP’s reforms had real, positive effects in its first five years, as it has consolidated power it has become less interested in opening up Turkish political discourse, more traditionally nationalistic, and more aggressive in its persecution of political opponents. One can hardly blame them for the weakness and ineptitude of the political opposition, but this has only exacerbated the problem of too much power in the hands of one party for too long. Turkish political life, always subject to a tradition of patronage called kadrolaşma,in which political allies are rewarded with positions in the bureaucracy, has now created something resembling a democratically elected single-party state.
The particular question over which the generals resigned last week was the on-going Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations. It seems likely that there is some truth to the basic premise of these investigations, which allege a conspiracy to destabilize the democratically elected government of Turkey as a means of dislodging the AKP from power. Nonetheless, the investigations have bloated beyond all recognition, with hundreds under investigation and no trial in sight. Many of those accused, including some top military officers, have been put into pre-trial detention indefinitely. Moreover, the investigations have come to look increasingly like a means of punishing political enemies. Ahmet Şık for example, a journalist with a long-standing interest in human rights, and one of those who helped publicize the Ergenekon case in the first place, is now under arrest as a conspirator, though it appears his major “crime” was to write a book critical of the political ambitions of the Gülen movement, a religious group with close ties to the governing AKP.
By and large, the mood among the Turkish journalists and human rights workers that I have spoken to in recent months has been dark. The Ergenekon investigations seem to have gone off-track and it is likely that many of those being held are, in fact, completely innocent. The AKP has, for all its success in the mechanics of democratic politics, proven to be remarkably illiberal in its own right: authoritarian in its instincts, intolerant of dissent, and increasingly militaristic in tone. Political opposition groups are weak and divided, while there are few cracks evident within the AKP’s own structure. Moreover, violence associated with Kurdish nationalism has been on the upswing. The AKP’s response has been markedly bellicose. It is, in the final analysis, a good thing that the Turkish military’s role in “stewarding” Turkish politics has come to an end. But I am not feeling very celebratory.