In an attempt to bring Turkish law in line with requirements set forth by the European Union, the government submitted a package of laws last week to parliament. Turkey's powerful military, long a supporter of the country's drive toward EU membership, has objected to some elements in the 19-article package, considered by many observers to strike at the military's considerable political influence.
Referred to as the seventh "adoption package," the most recent set of legal amendments originally called for amending the controversial anti-terror law, permitting foreign language broadcasting and reducing the number of military representatives in the influential National Security Council (NSC), among other goals. Objections by the opposition CHP to an article allowing foreign observers during elections and from the military to an article allowing the use of languages other than Turkish in pre-election campaigns were both rejected.
The government had hoped the package would be approved prior to a late June EU summit in Thessalonica , but President Ahmet Necdet Sezer vetoed two articles calling for changes to the notorious Article 8 of the anti-terror act that criminalises political propaganda, arguing that the annulment of the law could pose a threat to the unitary structure of the state.
Deputy PM Mehmet Ali Sahin and Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül commented that the vetoed article could be resubmitted to parliament without any changes. Given the traditional prominence of Turkey's military establishment, there promises to be plenty of discussion this week as parliament mulls over the legislation. Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül has said that the package would be adopted before parliament goes into summer recess, scheduled for the end of July.
Turkey's application to the EU has picked up momentum of late. After the Thessalonica summit, Gül confirmed that negotiations with the EU could begin before the end of 2004, making 2011 or 2012 a realistic accession date. Hans Jorg Kretschmer, representative of the European Commission in Turkey, last week pointed out that Turkey's national programme included all the elements for a good road map.
The prominence of the military in Turkey's political landscape has emerged as a dominant theme in recent discussions. Joost Lagendijk, co-president of the EU-Turkey joint parliamentary commission, recently stressed the importance of a new relationship between Turkish civilian and military authorities, arguing that the latter should be subordinate to the former. While lauding Turkey's recent reform efforts, Kretschmer described the military's role in politics as a shortcoming of Turkish democracy. Italian state minister Rocco Buttiglione went a bit further, commenting that there was no complete democracy in Turkey, since the power was in the hands of the military. Italy began a six-month stint at the head of the Council of the European Union last week.
Many in Turkey's secular establishment see things differently. They welcome the military's adopted role as a constraint against the Islamist leanings of political parties such as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its predecessors, the Welfare Party (RP) and Virtue Party (FP). RP was ousted from power in a 1997 "post-modern" coup, while the latter was banned in June 2001 for violating the strict separation of religion from the public sphere. The banning of the RP was criticised in Brussels, which expressed concern about the apparent contradictions between democracy, as defined and practised in the EU, and Turkey's brand of imposed secularism.
The most prominent embodiment of the military's political role can be seen in the National Security Council, a civilian/military body that meets regularly to discuss important domestic and international issues, before offering the government its "advice" on the best course of action.
Aware that the military would prove a sizeable hurdle for the adaptation package, Gül met with the chief of general staff Hilmi Ozkok on June 10. Ozkok reportedly expressed concern about some of the proposed changes, leading, for instance, to a compromise between the government and the military concerning foreign language broadcasting, in which state-run television would broadcast Kurdish language programming with a possible widening to be considered later.
Local newspapers have reported that the military resisted reducing the number of its representatives on the NSC, as well as suggestions that the general secretary of the council be a civilian. One alternative being discussed foresees allowing a member of the military to remain as secretary general, but granting the prime minister direct authority in his or her appointment.
Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the military has assumed the role of defending and promoting Atatürk's vision of a secular, western-oriented Turkey. This role was first invoked in 1960 when the military assumed power in a coup organised by army officers. In 1971, the military edged the elected government out and installed a technocratic leadership until 1973. With the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the concept of curtailing democracy as an unfortunate, but often-necessary means to preserving the secular nature of the state was reinforced. In 1980, rising civil disorder once again led the military to depose the government. In each case, the military relinquished power to a civilian government within three years. The EU, however, seems intent to define Turkey's democratic credentials in terms of a diminished political role for the military.
Therein lies the great divide: While most Turks praise the military as the guarantor of democracy, the EU remains wary of accepting a country that needs the military to guarantee its democracy.
The military, meanwhile, has been keen to emphasise that it remains behind Turkey's EU bid. But questions remain about the extent to which the military is prepared to relinquish control in an effort to push that bid forward.
There are however, indications that the military's influence is on the decline. With Kurdish separatist violence under control, the state of emergency that had blanketed much of southeast Turkey during the latter 1990s has been lifted. The US, which categorises the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation, is now calling the shots in Iraq, where the PKK had established bases. As a result of the relative calm, the Turkish military has announced a restructuring process, shortening military service and reducing the number of conscripts by 17%.
Perhaps the most tangible indication of the military's diminished role came with the recent Iraq crisis. Despite considerable pressure from the US, the Turkish parliament resisted allowing allied forces to launch an offensive from Turkish territory into Iraq. As one of the largest beneficiaries of military assistance from the US, the Turkish military remains keen to reinforce its importance to America's strategic interests in the region. But allied forces were successful in toppling the Iraqi regime in relatively short order without opening a northern front through Turkey.
While speculation about how long the AKP could resist pressure from the military began almost immediately following its landslide victory in elections in November last year, the AKP has displayed surprising agility in steering clear of hurdles that had toppled other parties with roots in political Islam. Prime Minister Erdogan recently described the Turkish military as the pioneer of modernisation and democratisation in the country.
The amendments currently being discussed are widely considered to take bolder steps than ever before in curtailing the military's sway over the country's political affairs. Gül has said that the EU harmonisation package, which the government is currently working on, would be the last reform package this year. As Ankara moves closer to Brussels, however, more reforms are expected. Just how much influence the military is prepared to surrender remains to be seen.