Changing Role Of Turkey's Military Raises Questions

Turkey's AK Party, with roots in Islam, has consolidated power, and the military has seen its revered place in Turkish society diminish. Some of those who favor a modern Turkish state — including civilian control over the military — worry that in the name of democratic reform the government is accumulating too much power.

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And now we turn to Turkey, the only county in NATO with a Muslim majority. Turkey's army has long been the symbol of a secular nation, and a major force in deciding who runs the country. But its revered place in Turkish society has diminished as the civilian government has challenged the military. Some who favor a modern Turkish state worry that the government is accumulating too much power in the name of democratic reform.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: The event that triggered the latest round of debate over the military's role in Turkish life was not earth-shaking. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan forced the military to abandon one of its hand-picked candidates for a senior leadership post, and accept a compromise candidate whose policy views are not very different from the military's first choice. And yet in the history of modern Turkey, such an assertion of power by civilian leaders over the military was rare, even shocking.

(Soundbite of marching band music)

KENYON: Long the defenders not only of Turkish territory but of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's vision of a modern secular state, the Turkish armed forces grew accustomed to operating with impunity. The generals didn't hesitate to unseat governments they weren't happy with, staging coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980.

But in recent years, the government has grown more assertive, stunning the military with a string of arrests and accusations that senior military officers engaged in disruptive - sometimes treasonous - behavior. Those allegations have not been proved, but analysts say the damage to the military's image has been done.

Mr. YAVUZ BAYDAR (Newspaper Columnist): The military, once seen as the holy, untouchable and perfect institution, is almost entirely de-mythified right now.

KENYON: Yavuz Baydar, a columnist at the English-language Today's Zaman newspaper, says the military and its supporters are still powerful players, but Turkey has evolved to the point where governments fear the displeasure of the voters more than that of the generals.

Mr. BAYDAR: But it is certain that the military now realizes that the periods of coup - is over. It has, actually, already entered - phase of negotiations with the government.

KENYON: The government's political win over the generals comes at an important time for Prime Minister Erdogan, who's ramping up the campaign for a series of constitutional reforms, which go to a public referendum next month. Erdogan is framing the vote as an opportunity to repudiate past military coups and to rewrite the constitution drafted under the military's influence after the last one in 1980.

The problem for some Turks, says professor Emrullah Uslu at Istanbul's Yeditepe University, is that the A-K Party's own commitment to genuine democratic reform is now in question.

Professor EMRULLAH USLU (Yeditepe University): The government, to be honest, is not a government that promoted full-fledged democracy. We know that this government has taken one step further and two steps back in history.

KENYON: Analyst Gareth Jenkins says after winning the governing majority in 2002, the A-K Party launched a series of genuine reforms as part of Turkey's arduous drive toward qualification for membership in the European Union. But after eight years in power, Jenkins says many are questioning whether the government is still promoting democracy or its own perpetuation in power.

Mr. GARETH JENKINS (Analyst): First, we had them becoming more democratic, and now we're getting increasingly a more authoritarian government. And of course, civilian control of the military is a prerequisite for democracy, but it's not democracy in itself. And I think if you want to look at the most obvious example of that, you just have to look at Russia - where you do have civilian control over the military in Russia, but you do not have anything approaching a full democracy.

KENYON: Supporters of the government say such fears are overblown, and even the government's strongest critics agree that Erdogan's leadership has been notable for his cautious, incremental approach to change. But as longstanding taboos continue to fall, some Turks are wondering whether the apparent demise of the old, secular elite is giving way to a new Democratic future - or simply a new, religious elite.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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