For a long time the military enjoyed relatively autonomous power in the Turkish Republic. After the military coup of 1980 and during the 1990s, the authoritarian state, centered around the military, was able to reproduce and reinforce itself. Yet this reality was reversed after the arrival to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, which saw a curbing of the military’s authority. Indeed, victory in the AKP’s political battle against the armed forces was the only way for the party to impose its hegemony over the Turkish state.
Among the factors crucial in allowing the AKP to gain the upper hand over the military was that the AKP had both the will and strength to impose civilian dominance. Between 2002 and 2005, the AKP-led government introduced constitutional and legal reforms that were required to join the European Union. These were used as leverage to curb the military’s power, especially that of the National Security Council. The government’s relative pacification of the Kurdish question at the time also made this process easier, by lowering tensions in a conflict that had greatly expanded the military’s margin of maneuver in the state.
However, in April 2007 the military vetoed the candidacy of Abdullah Gül, a leading AKP figure, for the presidency of the republic. This prompted the AKP to confront the military more directly, which it did through the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials beginning in 2008. Many high-ranking serving and retired military officials—including the former chiefs of staff of the air, naval, and ground forces, together with many journalists, lawyers, politicians, and academics—were accused of plotting to overthrow the government and were sentenced to prison terms. After the referendum of 2010, thanks to this process, the AKP gradually gained control over higher judicial bodies such as the Constitutional Court and the High Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors. Constitutional changes further curbed the military’s power over the military courts and the Supreme Military Council.
Yet the imposition of civilian rule did not democratize Turkey’s political authorities, or civilian-military relations. Indeed, in the post-2013 period the country faced social and political problems that led the AKP to increase state authoritarianism. The party’s consolidation of power suffered a setback in the elections of June 2015, when the AKP failed to form a single-party government. The renewed militarization of the conflict with the Kurds that followed, however, enabled the further authoritarian drift of the state, as did the effort by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to change the constitution and put in place a reinforced presidential system that enhanced his power.
On July 15, 2016, elements in the military, most of them acting on behalf of the Gülen movement, sought to overthrow Erdoğan in a coup. The effort failed and it soon led to the imposition of a state of emergency. This brought about the dismissal of over 116,000 public employees as well as massive purges in the military, with some 8,200 officers affected. The government also passed new laws that restructured civilian-military relations, ending or sharply restricting powers that had been granted to the general staff, force commands, and other military institutions. Their powers were redistributed to the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Interior, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the President’s Office.
Among the most important changes were the subordination of the Ground, Naval and Air Force Commands to the Ministry of National Defense, and of the Gendarmerie General Command and Coast Guard Command to the Ministry of Interior. The president and prime minister were also granted the power to give direct orders to force commanders. The membership structure of the Supreme Military Council, the frequency of its meetings, and the use of its authority were also changed in a way to consolidate government control.
The government closed down military schools (equivalent to the middle and high school levels) and placed war colleges and military academies (for university-level and graduate-level studies) under the National Defense University, itself under the authority of the Ministry of National Defense. Previously, the military had controlled these institutions, and the changes sought to ensure it would not influence the training of military personnel and recruitment.
Changes were also made in two important defense industry institutions—the Undersecretariat of Defense Industry and the Foundation for Strengthening the Turkish Armed Forces—both of which were attached to the President’s Office. The National Intelligence Service, now reporting directly to the president, was authorized to conduct security investigations of Ministry of National Defense personnel, affiliated agencies and institutions, as well as military personnel both on active duty and not.
After Erdoğan was reelected president last June 24, he issued presidential decrees that restructured institutions in the Turkish state, many of them affecting the military. Some reaffirmed decrees issued during the state of emergency, while others were new. For instance, the chief of general staff and the National Security Council and its general secretariat were directly attached to the President’s Office. The president was endowed with the authority to either nominate or give approval for the nomination of high-ranking officers, including the chief of general staff, force commanders, and the presidents and vice-presidents of the Directorate of the National Intelligence Organization and the Directorate of Defense Industry, as well as the general secretary and vice-secretaries of the National Security Council. All these positions are held by colonels and generals.
The regulations concerning the security sector in general and the military in particular were designed to establish presidential control over Turkey’s armed forces. However, it is not possible to talk about a democratic process of imposing civilian rule over the military when the powers of supervision and control remain monopolized by an all-powerful super-president.
This has created a deep crisis in the state, mainly manifested through protracted clashes among state elites and a move away from traditional institutionalism. Erdoğan has tried to overcome this situation through the strong presidency. Yet this has created a paradox. A presidency that establishes personal control over the military effectively undermines legal and other institutional mechanisms to curb its autonomy, paving the way for new forms of politicization of the military. Down the road, Turkey may have to face the dangerous repercussions of this reality.