After the passage of an important European Union harmonization package through parliament in early August, many Turks had begun to wonder just how the new reforms would go down with the country's powerful military. With their powers curbed, some opposition from the generals - and their stanch secularist allies - was widely expected. However, this has so far failed to materialize, as the government has adopted a "go softly" approach to the legislation's implementation, with the public's broad support for EU membership giving the harmonization package a sound political basis.
Key to the reform package were restrictions imposed on the responsibilities and authority of the military-dominated National Security Council (MGK). The Council is a legacy of the military coup in 1960 and took its current shape after a further takeover by the generals 20 years later. While the 1980 coup leadership eventually allowed civilian government, the generals established the MGK to closely monitor civilian government and intervene when necessary. The Council has a strong hold on Turkish politics, as it is the highest institution of state policy decision-making. The very fact that the military has that much power in the decision-making process has also been a handicap - and a subject for criticism - in establishing an effective democracy.
Under the legislation, the MGK will now have only an advisory function. Its meetings will also switch from monthly to bimonthly, leaving less room for the Council to take part in the formation of policies. Moreover, the structure of the MGK has been changed so that military control of the body is mitigated. The general secretary of the MGK had always been a military official, but from now on can be a civilian appointed by the president on the recommendation of the prime minister. In addition, for the first time ever, the reforms subject non-classified parts of the military's budget to civilian scrutiny.
Such potentially far-reaching changes were not expected to pass easily, particularly as they were being implemented by Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erodgan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The military is widely known to distrust the AKP's pro-Islamist past and has historically seen itself as the hardened vanguard of Turkey's secular republic. What opposition to the government that remains from within the military seems to resonate from a number of retiring generals. During an August meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS), outgoing 1st Army Commander General Cetin Dogan accused Erdogan of exploiting the Turkish people's desire to join the EU in order to attack the military. "Those forces that that will not permit disruption of Turkey's secular structure will act together," Dogan warned. Despite such admonitions, Dogan's comments did not appear to enjoy the unreserved support of General Staff Chief Hilmi Ozkok.
Another expected opponent of the changes was President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who is also a staunch secularist, and has the constitutional power to veto constitutional changes. However, he duly signed the sensitive constitutional changes into law without objection on August 6.
Narrowing down the influence of the military represents a bold step for the government, and one that could not previously have been attempted. When the government's preparations for this important reform came onto the agenda a few months ago, heated discussion took place, with politicians and the public carefully watching for the military's reaction. However, Turkey's bid for EU membership has made such structural changes unavoidable. The military, which also supports Turkey's EU membership, could do nothing but accept, even if reluctantly, this reduction in its influence. Many observers suggest too that if the military had created obstacles, it would have lost much of its prestige with the public and as a result, the basis of future political influence in the country would have been undermined.
Erdogan's AKP has also taken a compromising attitude towards curbing the military's influence, avoiding any serious conflict with the generals. It has bowed to some of the military's demands and stepped back at various points. The first decision regarding the implementation of the legislation was indicative of this approach. Some days after the package had been approved by parliament, the new general secretary of the MGK was appointed - but from among the ranks of the military.
The government has also been keen to involve the military in every step of its attempt to win parliamentary support for sending troops in a peacekeeping role to Iraq. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul both advocate a shift in Ankara's policy towards Baghdad in favour of support for the US-led coalition while shifting emphasis away from security concerns in Northern Iraq. To achieve this in the face of widespread hostility to any involvement south of the border -from the opposition, their own back benches and the public at large - they need military support.
The feeling among many observers is that a transition period is currently underway, with the government continuing to be sensitive to the military's concerns. The administration's strategy is to change the structure of military-civilian relations with the military's agreement. As may be expected, this is not going to be easy, but so far has not been as difficult as many expected, either.