While walking in Turkey recently, a friend of mine was stopped and called over by two armed soldiers. As he was in a country where denigration of the military can be punishable by up to two years in prison, the friend obediently approached the serious-faced soldiers. “Answer me this”, ordered one of the soldiers, “which one of us looks more charismatic?”
Having experienced four military coups in the last sixty years, it is little wonder why Turks would be apprehensive of the military, but is it really as harmless as it seems in this incident? While the Taksim Square protests this summer and Istanbul’s failure to get the Olympic bid two weeks ago highlighted issues such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly dictatorial-style politics, encroachment on secularism and Syrian refugees, there was relatively little mention of the army. Yet the central role that the military played in Egypt and Syria this summer, as well as in the Ergenekon (see below) trials in Turkey itself, could be an indicator that the military is still a threat to Erdoğan’s power, albeit perhaps a latent one.
One of the most obvious signs of military prestige in Turkey is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, army officer and founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923, whose the portrait adorns almost every street and public building; although it is no longer obligatory to display one, Atatürk is still a figure of national pride. Yet the military was a pillar of the Turkish establishment even before Atatürk, as the Turkish military elites played a key role in modernisation when they adopted a European style army model in education, technology, and structure in the early twentieth-century. This top-down modernisation not only created a close relationship between the military and political elites, but also allowed the army to take on the role of protector and unifier of the state, hence justifying intervention.
Modernisation also began a separation of secular and religious affairs, which was continued by the Kemalists, who associated Islam with the backwardness of the Ottoman regime. As the army became more secular, it began to clash with several religious groups, one of which has evolved into the majority party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party). AKP’s roots in the pro-Islamist Welfare Party, which was forced out of power in 1997 by the army, show that it was likely to be in conflict with the military from the start and its actions have shown little attempt at conciliation.
Since assuming office in 2003, Erdoğan has made a concerted effort to reduce military power by attacking the derin devlet or ‘deep state’. Similar to the idea of a ‘state within a state’, the derin devlet is a coalition of powerful individuals that either serves to protect from bad governance or to protect their own interests, depending on how you look at it. As many in the derin devlet are the successors of the abovementioned elites, Erdoğan has focussed his efforts on weakening the army. Two years ago, he appointed politically neutral Necdet Özel as Chief of the General Staff and Özel’s subsequent promise of closer cooperation between the army and the government indicates Erdoğan’s desire to establish more control over the institution by placing allies within it.
The golden opportunity for Erdoğan to weaken the army came with the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon military coup attempts that seemed to confirm the anti-democratic and conspiratorial nature of the army. Disregarding the specifics of the cases, they provided the government both with an excuse to purge the army and attack potential threats to the AKP: over the last ten years hundreds of arrests have been followed by a list of organisations which Ergenekon was supposedly controlling, including the Hizbullah, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
As the Turkish military is an institution that bases much of its authority on its ability to unify a particularly diverse country, these scandals have seriously debilitated it by exposing factional divisions and painting the army itself as the ‘enemy within’. While conscription and the Atatürk cult help to uphold the manpower, quality, and reputation of the army, there have been few calls for army intervention over the turbulent last few months of anti-AKP protests; even opposition parties such as the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) have denounced a coup as “out of step with democracy”.
It appears that military influence in politics has declined over the last twenty years and the army pose a latent, rather than an immediate threat to Erdoğan and his democratically elected regime. However, if the Taksim and PKK issues prove to be in remission rather than resolved, the army may take up its legal right to “guard and defend the Turkish Republic”, and conscription and the derin devlet would enable it to do so. If Erdoğan’s democratic image is further tarnished, he will have little more justification for his power than the military juntas did and may find many who agree with Özel’s predecessor, Işık Koşaner, who said that the “protection of fundamental characteristics of the republic cannot be considered as an intervention in domestic politics.”
 Arslan 2000, p.2 Arslan A. (2000). A different modernization experience: Turkish modernization and the army. Uluslararasıİnsan Bilimleri Dergisi,1(2), p.2
 Article 35 Turkish Armed Forces Internal Services Law No. 211, cited in Vera Eccarius-Kelly, The Militant Kurds: A Dual Strategy for Freedom (Santa Barbara 2011) p.126