Turkey: What if They Called a Coup and Nobody Came?

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A few short years ago, the mass resignation of the top echelon of Turkey’s military leadership might be interpreted as the equivalent of that moment, on a beach, when the waves suddenly roll so far out to sea that thousands of yards of sand are revealed: Any coastal dweller will tell you that’s the moment to run for the hills because a tidal wave is coming; and not long ago any observer of Turkish politics would be bracing for a coup. After all, on four occasions since 1960 — the most recent in 1997, against a government considered the forerunner of the current AK Party — the military had deposed elected governments.

But while Friday’s move certainly reflects a feeling on the part of the generals that democratic civilian rule under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had become intolerable, early indications are that it could be the generation of officers who formed the backbone of the “Deep State” that claimed the right to fire civilian governments whose direction they opposed that will be swept away.

Indeed, most analysts read the generals’ resignation — in protest against the continued detention of almost one tenth of the military’s serving generals who were arrested in the course of a long-running investigation over a coup plot — as an admission that the military had lost its power to overrule the decisions of a democratically elected government. (Some of Erdogan’s critics claim the arrests themselves as politically motivated, seeing them as a way to gut the key institution protecting Turkish secularism from an Islamist onslaught.) They’d not have needed to resign, after all, if they could simply order the tanks out into the streets to put the civilian government in its place.

Some suggest however, that the generals move is not an expression of despair, but instead a deliberate move to put Erdogan’s government in crisis, the argument being that the military as an institution is so steeped in secularism and an innate hostility to the ruling AK Party that the Prime Minister will not find a more sympathetic leadership cadre to replace those who’ve stood down — and will therefore be forced to back off on the pursuit of so many top military men on suspicion of coup-plotting. But that’s a risky bet.

Erdogan is hardly cowering; he immediately accepted the resignations and prepared to put his own choice in charge of the military. Since his political hand was strengthened by his reelection in June, he has adopted ever more assertive positions on issues ranging from domestic policy and constitutional change to foreign policy and the campaign against Kurdish separatism.

If he prevails in the showdown with the military, Turkey will have closed a chapter on more than a half century of effective military rule, for the first time bringing the country’s once most-powerful institution under civilian political control. That prospect divides opinion among Turkey’s urban intelligentsia, with those who see Erdogan as an increasingly authoritarian crypto-Islamist fearing its demise, while others hailing the triumph of democracy over unelected authoritarian military power.

And, of course, it’s quite possible that the government is forced to seek a new accommodation with the military, if it lacks the power to completely reshape and reorient the institution at this stage. Still, Erdogan — and Turkey’s civilian democracy — remain ahead of the game as long as there’s no coup.

Indeed, the extent to which the generals are unable to wield the veto power over government they once enjoyed may reflect the changes brought on by the slow but steady democratization of Turkey, and the transformation of its civil society towards a democratic consensus that negates the military’s self-appointed role as overseer of the nation’s leadership. The military, after all, draws its personnel from the self-same civil society. And as the German poet Bertolt Brecht once noted in a poem, “General, your tank is a powerful vehicle, it smashes down forests and crushes 100 men. But it has one defect: It needs a driver.”