Eissenstat: Turkey’s Generals Resign

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.

Howard Eissenstat, Department of History, St. Lawrence University

4 Responses

  1. EU offıcıals obvıously have better understandıng of Turkey than the author of thıs text.

    I would not (after more than ten years living in Turkey) put 100% trust in integrity of any journalist, and especially not the bunch who are suspects in Ergenekon and similar cases. What author missed to explain is that the journalist in question are not jailed for their writing, but for suspicion of belonging to Ergenekon bunch. Yes, it looks bad arresting journos, but that profession cannot and should not provide imunity for criminal activities (and whoever knows anything about history of modern Turkey can’t deny that it was often case that journos were part of plots).

    In the end there are lot of vitriolic press against AK party government, and if thesis that Erdogan & comp. can’t stand dissent they all would be in their crosshair. However that is not the case.

  2. I’m sure there was not a scintilla of irony in Prof. Cole’s highlighting of Dr. Eissenstat’s observations on Turkey.

    Gee, do any of the “features and benefits” of Turkey’s General-ridden society recall any of the dysfunctions of our own? Pure rhetorical question, of course.

    And it’s the measure of the depth of the kleptocratic sickness that the powers that be can tolerate even the small degree of divergence that you find in blogs like this (albeit with close observation for any signs of effective calls to action.)

    Was it Chomsky who observed that the kleptocracy can even tell the actual working classes, the ones who create the real wealth that parasites like our political and military and corporate tapeworms live on, right out loud to our distracted faces exactly what they are doing, because us working stiffs are so bemused by the imagery of “freedomndemocracy” and the myths of mobility that we pay no effective attention?

    And one wonders, given the tenacity of military elites and the human tendency to grow and protect and prolong any advantages of wealth and power, whether in fact they have stepped away from the levers of power at all, or if so for how long.

    You can pretty much take Dr. Eissenstat’s exposition of current Turkish political economy as a checklist, and match it up point by point with our own former republic, the one Ben Franklin warned us we might have a little difficulty keeping…

  3. I recall when a high-handed pinko cripple took a country broken by its capitalist oligarchy and made it into the world’s greatest power. 4-term presidency, 94% top tax brackets, open statements of class warfare, labor unions allowed to win, federally-run war factories, all built on an old base of corrupt big-city ethnic political machines and a very corrupt deal with Southern reactionaries. My America. The America that existed before that, I would have been building bombs and waving red flags in, and I’ll do it in the future if it’s necessary. I bet a lot of Turks felt the same way before the AKP.

    Allah bless the Turks, and God bless all the leftists who have saved Latin America from the Shock Doctrine from Chavez to Lula – two-fisted populism is the only force that seems powerful enough to keep down what Lincoln called “the money power”. Get too liberal-squeamish about methods and you will end up under the thumb of fascist death squads in an instant.

  4. There is one thing about Turkish journalists that amazes me: most supports an ideology or a political party but none acknowledges this publicly. There were ones who supported coups and worked to make them happen, and ‘democratic’ ones who didn’t have the guts to even criticize coups even after many years. One journalist even claimed that “it was in their genes” to support coups: link to hurriyetdailynews.com

    I believe Turkey won’t embrace a real democracy until the “elite” among the journalists, artists and even professors, who supported army takeovers, are gone for good along with the “elite” generals who actually planned those takeovers. I agree that AKP, in particular PM Erdogan, is a bit intolerant towards critical views but they are nonetheless the ones who contributed most to carve the way towards a more democratic Turkey.

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