Monitoring the Military Might: The Once All-Powerful Turkish Military Machine Is Playing a Less Obvious Role in Domestic Politics but Its Influence Should Not Be Underestimated. Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul

By Gorvett, Jon | The Middle East, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Monitoring the Military Might: The Once All-Powerful Turkish Military Machine Is Playing a Less Obvious Role in Domestic Politics but Its Influence Should Not Be Underestimated. Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul


Gorvett, Jon, The Middle East


Last month marked the 23rd anniversary of Turkey's last military coup. That milestone, together with the recent reform of the country's political structure-and debates over the country's policy towards Iraq--have refocused attention on one of the nation's most important and powerful institutions--the military.

On 12 September 1980, a group of the country's top commanders, led by General Kenan Evren, seized power at the head of columns of tanks in Ankara and Istanbul. They arrested the then president and the prime minister, along with most of the country's top political leaders, shut down all political parties and closed trade union, community and religious organisations.

Declaring they were doing so in order to restore order after months of street fighting between leftist and rightist groups, they had the tacit support of many Turks, who hoped it would mean the end of the chaos. The US administration of President Jimmy Carter protested officially, though many US officials found it difficult to conceal their delight, seeing the coup as insurance against possible

Soviet influence over the country. That was then. September 2003 saw the military in quite a different position. Back in August, Turkey's parliament passed the 7th European Union Harmonisation Package--a cluster of reforms that targeted the military's influence in politics and proceeded to attempt to trim it to a more acceptable shape in Brussels.

The changes concern one of the highest organs of the state--the National Security Council (MGK). This was first established following a military coup in 1960, although it has undergone various changes since then. Following the 1980 coup, the generals set it up as the command centre of the country's government, comprising the coup leaders--the heads of the services, the paramilitary gendarmarie and General Evren. Later, following partial democratisation in the early 1980s, civilians were also allowed in.

With the gradual relaxation of military rule, civilians assumed greater authority. The president chaired the more contemporary MGK, with the leaders of the elected government on one side of the table and the generals on the other. Yet the balance of power remained in favour of the military.

In 1997, it was at the MGK that the generals launched the 'soft coup' that eventually led to the resignation of the then pro-Islamist government. The meeting agenda was largely in the hands of the generals, with the permanent secretariat of the MGK composed of staff officers.

However, for the last few years, the influence of the military seems to have waned as the issues facing the country's rulers have shifted away from security. The most famous meetings of the MGK over the last few years have been noticeable for the lack of any real input from the generals. In 2001, an infamous scene occurred at one of these in which the prime minister and the president hurled copies of the constitution at each other, provoking a financial crisis from which the country is still struggling to recover. At that meeting, the generals appear to have sat dumbfounded. Discussions over monetary policy and privatisation have long overshadowed debates on the 'Greek threat' or the 'Kurdish insurgency' on Turkey's political agenda.

With the country going flat out for EU membership, the genceals have been somewhat sidelined.

The debate in the lead up to the US-led invasion of Iraq saw no statement from the generals on the vexed question of whether Turkey should allow US troops to use the country as a springboard for their assault.

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Monitoring the Military Might: The Once All-Powerful Turkish Military Machine Is Playing a Less Obvious Role in Domestic Politics but Its Influence Should Not Be Underestimated. Jon Gorvett Reports from Istanbul
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