Insight Turkey
Insight Turkey
Challenging ideas
On Turkish politics and International affairs

Insight Turkey > Articles |

Civil-Military Relations During the AK Party Era: Major Developments and Challenges

The remarkable transformation of Turkish civil-military relations since the AK Party’s rise to power has not led to total democratization in this area. Although EU reforms reduced the military‘s formal and informal powers and trials about contemporary and historic coup cases might indicate that the military has been subordinated to civilian authority, achieving democratic civil-military relations would require a balance of power between civilians and the military: While the military must relinquish its role as the country’s guardians, civilians must work to regain the trust of military officers that they lost through the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases. Perhaps then Turkish civil-military relations can reach a democratic level, promoting democratic consolidation in the country.

Civil-Military Relations During the AK Party Era Major Developments and
Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan chairs the Supreme Military Council meeting. AA

The dominant role of the Turkish military in politics has constituted one of the significant obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in Turkey. The Turkish military has controlled politics since the establishment of the Republic in 1923 and more strongly starting in the 1960s through direct and indirect military interventions and the prerogatives received following various coups. The Turkish military sees itself as the guardian of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s reforms and principles, particularly secularism and nationalism, and has not refrained from intervening politically whenever it perceived that these values were in danger. Recently, however, the Turkish Armed Forces has slowly but significantly been losing this power. Since the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AK Party) took power in November 2002, there has been a dramatic shift in the balance of power at the expense of the military, establishing a more civilian dominated system. However, the progress in achieving civilian control has not yet transformed Turkish civil-military relations into a genuinely democratic model. 

According to Diamond et al, the factors promoting the consolidation of democracy include political institutions, civil society, socio-economic development, international factors and particularly civil-military relations.1 Diamond argues that democratic consolidation cannot be achieved without the subordination of a country’s military to civilian control and its allegiance to the democratic constitutional order.2 A suitable balance of power must be established between the military and civilians in which the military does not use coercive power –given to it by civilians for the purpose of protecting them in war– against civilians in order to impose its will on society.3 At the same time, civilians are supposed to treat the military fairly. Currently in Turkey, the military appears to have fallen under civilian supremacy, while still maintaining its mindset as the ultimate guardian of the state. Meanwhile, military officers and secularist circles do not trust civilians, particularly the judiciary, as a result of the allegations of unfair treatment of military members in the recently concluded Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) trials. Consequently, such uneasy relations do not promote the transformation of Turkish civil-military relations into a democratic model, thus hindering Turkey’s democratic consolidation process.4 

The dominant role of the Turkish military in politics has constituted one of the significant obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in Turkey

Since coming to power in 2002, AK Party governments have aimed to decrease the military’s power in politics through legal and institutional changes. First, the EU-mandated reforms pursued by the AK Party government caused the military to lose its formal (institutional) mechanisms, such as the National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Konseyi—MGK). Second, as a result of the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials that cost the military officers their credibility due to charges of plotting a coup against the government, the military lost various informal (non-institutional) mechanisms, such as public speeches and press conferences, through which the senior military members had previously intervened in politics.

Third, the consolidation of the AK Party’s political power and the desecuritization policies it followed until recently also reduced the military’s significant role in dealing with internal threats, such as the rise of Kurdish nationalism in the form of PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan - Kurdish Workers Party) terror, and international threats particularly with neighboring Middle Eastern states. The decrease in PKK attacks in the early years of the government also helped this desecuritization policy. Moreover, the new political atmosphere, in which a strong ruling party had consolidated its power by increasing its support in three consecutive elections, meant that the military could not retain the power it possessed throughout the 1970s and 1990s when the weakness of civilian politicians and parties generated a vacuum of authority. Finally, the military recently lost more of its institutional power, mainly through the 2010 Constitutional amendments that limited the jurisdiction of military courts, abolished the military’s right to conduct internal security operations without the consent of civilian authorities and increased civilian oversight of military expenditures. In addition, the government recently amended Article 35 of the Internal Service Law that gave the armed forces the right to intervene in the face of internal threats. 

To analyze these major developments and challenges in civil-military relations during the AK Party era, this article will start with a brief overview of the military’s role in Turkish politics by focusing on the institutional mechanisms through which it exerted power into politics since the 1960s. It will then concentrate on civil-military relations in two periods during AK Party’s rule.5 

First, this article will examine how the cautious policies that the military and government initially followed towards each other between 2002 and 2007 turned from a controlled power struggle to an open conflict. It will consider the EU reforms aimed at curbing the military’s formal power in politics, before concentrating on the military’s interference in domestic and foreign policies through informal mechanisms, particularly speeches by senior military officers. This section will end by describing the open conflict between the two sides during the presidential elections of 2007. For the second period, from 2007 until 2013, the article will mainly focus on the reasons for the dramatic decrease in the military’s political power and its subordination to civilian control. It will first analyze the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup investigations and trials, as well as the investigations of the 1980 and 1997 coups, before discussing the consolidation of the AK Party’s political power. Finally, it will consider further institutional powers that were stripped from the military during this period. The article will conclude with a discussion of whether or not this shift in civil military relations in Turkey represents a move towards a democratic model by mainly concentrating on the mindset of military officers who are unwilling to accept the professional culture of civilian supremacy and the members of the military, secularist circles, part of media and civil society organizations who are disturbed by the judicial system’s handling of the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. 



An Overview of Turkish Civil-Military Relations prior to the 2000s 

The Turkish military, having contributed to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, accepted itself as the protector of the principles and reforms of the young republic set by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Consequently, it has intervened in politics whenever it has perceived threats to these principles, particularly secularism and nationalism, or to general law and order.6 It guarded the Turkish state’s national interests against all kinds of internal and external threats.

Although civilians seemed to have direct political control in the early years of the Republic, it cannot be considered as full civilian control since the ruling elite, most significantly Atatürk and İsmet İnönü, were former military officers who became politicians after establishing the Republic.7 The military first intervened politically in 1960, both directly and indirectly, when the Democratic Party government resorted to an authoritarian style of rule. It did so again in 1971 and 1980 when the country was dragged into chaos by struggles between extreme rightist and leftist groups. Although considerable civilian influence over military was established during the Prime Ministry and Presidency of Turgut Özal in late 1980s and early 1990s, the Turkish military’s interference into politics increased dramatically throughout most of the 1990s as a result of the rise of PKK’s separatist terror and fragile coalition governments. The military also intervened in 1997, when the Islamist conservative Welfare Party (Refah Partisi— RP) was in power and seemed to be following what the military called Islamist fundamentalist policies. While the PKK was a threat to the territorial integrity of the country for the military, Islamist fundamentalism was a danger for the secular foundation of the Republic. In the 1960 and 1980 coups, the military intervened directly by overthrowing the government, banning various political parties and political leaders from politics and establishing its own junta government under martial law. That is, the military took power directly into its own hands. By contrast, the military intervened indirectly in 1971 and 1997 by pressuring the elected governments to resign through threats of coups rather than directly establishing a military administration, which left the ruling of the country to those political parties and leaders that the military favored. In the 1997 coup, for example, the military followed a method of attrition to remove the RP from power by cooperating with labor organizations, the judiciary, universities, the media and other civil society organizations. The military believed that by intervening in politics, it was helping to sustain democracy by keeping the excesses of rightist, leftist and Islamist politicians under control. This was a period in which there was complete military supremacy over civilian politics.8 

In the aftermath of each intervention, the military increased its political power by according itself significant prerogatives. These privileges were mainly implemented in the form of important institutions, such as the National Security Council (Milli Güvenlik Konseyi – MGK), the State Security Courts, and various departments, groups and centers established by the General Staff. The MGK, which was established as a council for the military to submit its views on national security to civilian politicians, quickly turned into a formal platform for military members to dictate their wishes to politicians, forcing the Council of Ministers to give priority to the MGK’s decisions. The State Security Courts, where military judges were involved in civilian trials, dealt with political crimes such as terrorism, separatism and activities against the Republic. The military also set up its own departments, groups and centers to collect information concerning domestic and foreign policies. Some of the most significant among these were the Western Working Group (Batı Çalışma Grubu) to fight the rise of political Islam, the Eastern Working Group (Doğu Çalışma Grubu) to cope with the rise of Kurdish nationalism, and the Prime-Ministerial Crisis Management Center (Başbakanlık Kriz Yönetim Merkezi) to observe and report on crises due to Islamic reactionaryism.9 

The military appears to have fallen under civilian supremacy, while still maintaining its mindset as the ultimate guardian of the state

Through these mechanisms the Turkish military managed to remain as a significant political actor as an equal partner with the popularly elected political parties and leaders. As stated by Sarıgil, the Turkish military was a popular praetorian military, which was involved in civilian politics by acting as the guardian of the state. It intervened in politics in an attempt to resolve the political disputes rather than establishing a military regime. Moreover, it was integrated into society and enjoyed popular support and legitimacy.10



Civil-Military Relations during the AK Party Era: Major Developments

In the aftermath of the coup on February 28th, 1997, the military warned and then forced the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi – RP) out of the coalition government with the True Path Party (Doğru Yol Partisi –DYP) over policies that were perceived as anti-secular by the armed forces. This forced resignation led to the establishment of the AK Party. In spite of their strong Islamist origins, the more moderate-looking and younger politicians that came from the youth organizations of the RP differed from the RP’s old guard in supporting secularism, adopting neo-liberal economic policies and aiming to make Turkey a full member of the EU. The AK Party’s first national electoral victory (with 34.4% of the vote) in November 2002 was met with apprehension by the Turkish Armed Forces, despite the party’s repeated declarations of its commitment to secularism. The military remained suspicious that behind the AK Party’s western-looking façade was a secret agenda to Islamize Turkish society. The military’s uneasiness with the party’s achievements increased further as the party’s share of the vote rose from 47.6% in the 2007 elections to 49.8% in 2011. The armed forces’ agitation eventually provoked several plans to overthrow the government by creating a chaotic atmosphere in order to justify a military coup. These plots ultimately led to the investigations, long trials and finally imprisonment of hundreds of active-duty and retired military officers in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials. The following section will examine AK Party’s relations with the military during two distinct periods.

The First Period: From Controlled Power Struggle to Open Conflict (2002-2007)

Once the AK Party came to power in November 2002, both the military and the government followed cautious policies towards each other. Although the military refrained from criticizing the government at first, it was later unable to restrain from voicing its disapproval of various AK Party policies. The military then used speeches given by its senior members to intervene in the government’s policies. The AK Party’s ruling elite tried to build a consensus with the military by avoiding Islamist policies and calling themselves a conservative rather than religious party. Moreover, they remodeled the party’s image and ideological agenda in a pro-western direction with neo-liberal economic policies and democratic reforms to qualify Turkey for full EU membership.11

The then Chief of General Staff, Hilmi Özkök, while warning the government on sensitive issues, such as secularism and territorial integrity, at the same time followed a conciliatory approach towards the government. In a speech right after the elections, he stated that he respected the results of the democratic process that reflected the choice of the people. While he declared in a speech a few days later that the military was ready to protect the country against any kind of threat, including Islamist fundamentalism and separatism, he also stated in private meetings with military commanders that as long as AK Party did not violate secularism, the military was not going to move against it.12 Although both the AK Party ruling elite and the military actually wanted to join the Gulf War of 2003 in Iraq, siding with the USA, the parliament voted against such action, the military did not intervene.

Unlike its predecessor the RP, as soon as the AK Party came to power, it aimed to make Turkey a full EU member. In particular, in order to meet the political conditions of the Copenhagen criteria, it aimed to democratize civil-military relations. To this end, through harmonization packages and constitutional amendments in the early 2000s, the AK Party government decreased the military’s institutional power by first curbing the strength of the MGK by reducing it to the level of an advisory body. To do so, it created a majority of civilian members in the MGK, reduced the frequency of its meetings, civilianized its secretariat, abolished the Secretary General’s extensive and supervisory powers, repealed the Council’s access to civilian agencies and placed its budget under the control of the Prime Ministry. Moreover, military representatives were removed from the Council of Higher Education (YÖK) and the High Audio Visual Board (RTÜK). The abolition of the State Security Courts reduced the military’s power to try civilians in military courts. In order to diminish the autonomy of the military in financial transactions, the power of the Parliament and the Court of Audit to supervise the military budget and state properties owned by the armed forces was increased.13 While passing these new bills, the government bypassed the MGK and sent the draft laws directly to the parliament to reduce the influence of military in such matters. At the same time, the military, which had always defined itself as the forerunner of westernization, did not oppose Turkey’s EU membership bid or the reforms being implemented to qualify Turkey to join the Union, as long as they did not violate Atatürk’s principles of secularism and nationalism as reflected in the indivisibility of Turkish territory.

Seeing the curtailment of their formal (institutional) mechanisms to exert political power through EU reforms, senior members of the military who resisted these reforms resorted to informal (non-institutional) mechanisms of power, such as speeches, press statements and declarations, to exercise political influence over domestic and foreign policy issues, including secularism, the Kurdish question and Cyprus. For example, through their speeches at commemorations, anniversaries and graduation ceremonies at military academies, the senior members of the military thwarted a number of AK Party policies. These included the reform of the higher education law to make it easier for graduates of vocational religious schools (İmam Hatip Okulları) to enter universities in fall 2003, the wearing of headscarves in public spaces throughout 2003, and the improvement of relations with the Gülen Schools and the National View movement (Milli Görüş)14 through diplomats in Turkish embassies in Europe in spring 2003. Upon the remilitarization of the PKK after ending its five-year unilateral ceasefire in June 2004, the military pushed the AK Party to take a harsher stance on terrorism, resulting in the establishment of a new anti-terror law in fall 2006.15 This new law changed the definition of many terrorist and terrorism-related offences and introduced new investigative measures regarding the prosecution of suspected terrorists.16 Along the same line, the Office of the General Staff interfered into the trial of non-commissioner officers who were charged with Şemdinli bombings.17 The rise of PKK terror during this period created a new sphere of influence for the armed forces.

Since 2002, AK Party governments have aimed to decrease the military’s power in politics through legal and institutional changes

Concerning foreign policy, towards the end of 2002 and early 2003, the military made various statements opposing the government’s decision to support Secretary General Kofi Annan’s plan for restructuring Cyprus as the United Republic of Cyprus, consisting of a federation of two states. However, in January 2004, the military also accepted the Annan Plan when the leadership in Cyprus changed. Another initiative that the military blocked was the government’s attempt to start direct negotiations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq in 2007. The government stepped back once the military, particularly the new Chief of General Staff, Yaşar Büyükanıt, indicated their opposition to such negotiations on the grounds that the KRG was the main force accommodating several thousand PKK militants. Similarly, although the government delayed starting a cross-border operation into Northern Iraq to counter increasing attacks of the PKK from this region, the military finally forced the government to initiate the operation. First, in October 2007, a government motion to approve cross-border military operations in the fight against the PKK was accepted in the parliament. Second, in November 2007, Prime Minister Erdoğan paid a visit to American President George W. Bush to receive a green light for the operation and the operation was realized in February 2008.18

These domestic and foreign political interventions by the military transformed the power struggle between the AK Party and the army into an open conflict. Having received 46.7% of the votes in the July 2007 general elections, the AK Party felt much stronger and more secure about controlling politics and placing pressure on the military. One of the main reasons for the conflict between the two sides was the AK Party’s loss of enthusiasm for EU reforms following the inception of the open accession negotiations on October 3, 2005. European concerns over Turkish membership led to the rise of Euroskepticism in Turkey. These developments provided space for the military to act against the AK Party government that had curbed its formal power through EU reforms. Another important reason for the confrontation was the replacement of a moderate Chief of General Staff, Hilmi Özkök, with the strongly nationalist and pro-secularist General Yaşar Büyükanıt. Unlike General Özkök, who preferred to keep quiet about everyday politics, General Büyükanıt involved himself by giving speeches concerning anti-secular and separatist activities.19

The most important conflict between the AK Party and the military occurred when the government made a prominent party member, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdullah Gül, their candidate for the 2007 Presidential Election. Unhappy with this decision but stripped of the formal mechanisms it previously used to intervene politically, the military resorted to informal mechanisms through a memorandum published on the military’s website by Büyükanıt on April 27, 2007, stating his worries about the alleged weakening of secularism in Turkey. He stated that the military opposed the candidacy of both Prime Minister Erdoğan and Minister of Foreign Affairs Gül. The response of the AK Party’s ruling elite was harsh, declaring that the Office of the Chief of General Staff was constitutionally answerable to the Prime Minister. In the end, after its victory in the July 2007 elections, the AK Party was able to have Gül elected to the presidency without difficulty. The military’s so-called April 27th e-memorandum marked a turning point in Turkish civil-military relations because from then on, relations moved in favor of the civilians at the expense of the military, subordinating the military to civilian orders.

The Second Period: The Military under the Subordination of the Civilians (2007-2013) 

Following the e-memorandum episode in April 2007 and the victory of the AK Party in the June 2007 elections, the military moved into a period of quiet protest rather than open conflict with the AK Party government. The dramatic decrease in the military’s power in both domestic and foreign politics and its subordination to civilians was the result of various factors. The first and most significant were the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which hundreds of junior and senior military officers were found guilty and imprisoned for planning to create chaos in Turkey in order to justify a military coup against the AK Party government. In addition to these trials, the military also started to lose credibility as a result of investigations and trials into the 1980 and 1997 coups that exposed various human rights violations.

Second, the AK Party’s consolidation of political power following its 2007 and 2011 electoral successes, with 46.7% and 49.8% of the votes respectively, gave the party more leeway to challenge the military and exercise full authority in domestic and international issues. Moreover, this strengthening enabled the party to pursue “desecuritization policies” for a certain period. That is, it permitted the party to transfer certain sensitive issues from the realm of security into the political realm. Third, the military’s loss of other institutional powers through additional constitutional amendments forced it to keep quiet over various political issues.

The Turkish military received a huge blow with the parallel court cases of Balyoz and Ergenekon, which ended in September 2012 and August 2013 respectively. In these trials, dozens of military officers, including a former Chief of General Staff and former army commanders, as well as journalists, academics, businessmen, ultra-nationalists and representatives of civil society organizations, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for attempting to plan coups to overthrow the government. The Ergenekon investigation, which can be considered the most important legal battle in recent Turkish history, started in June 2007 with the discovery of 27 hand grenades in a shanty house in Istanbul that belonged to a retired non-commissioned officer. These discoveries led to the arrest of 200 journalists, writers, military personnel, gang leaders, scholars and businessmen. Moreover, the discovery of the diaries of former Naval Forces Commander, Admiral Özden Örnek, in 2004 revealed coup plans under the code names of Blond Girl (Sarıkız) and Moonlight (Ayışığı), devised by the Land and Air Forces and Gendarmerie Commanders. In addition, in an attempt to undermine and overthrow the government, other operations called Sea Sparkle (Yakamoz), Glove (Eldiven) and Cage (Kafes) were planned by military members who perceived the AK Party government to be an open threat to the secularity principle of the Republic.20 

Balyoz was the most significant of these plans since it aimed at provoking high tension to eventually justify a military takeover. Planned activities included blowing up mosques during Friday prayers, setting off terrorist acts, assassinating political figures, attacking museums and initiating a conflict with Greece. There were also plans to start a psychological warfare unit to weaken Islamic reactionaries and promote more hardline generals to the position of Chief of General Staff. The charges and later verdicts, which created a complicated political controversy, seriously weakened the military’s credibility. 

The trials also allowed the AK Party to consolidate its supremacy over the military’s promotion system. For example, half of all Turkish admirals and one in ten active-duty generals were in prison in early 2012, accused of planning a coup against the government. Following a disagreement with Prime Minister Erdoğan over promoting members charged with plotting a coup in the Balyoz trial, the Chief of General Staff Işık Koşaner resigned in July 2011 and the heads of the army, navy, and air force requested early retirement. Despite the media’s coverage of the event as a ‘political earthquake’, the government normalized the resignations by stating that appointments and promotions in the military would be made in line with laws regulating dismissal and promotion, and swiftly appointed the former Gendarmerie General Commander, General Necdet Özel, as Land Forces Commander and acting Chief of General Staff. Thus, by intervening in these appointments, the government showed that civilian institutions now had oversight over military decisions.

Besides the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, an important step in the democratization of civil-military relations was taken when the investigations and trials were started for the perpetrators of the 1980 and 1997 coups. This was made possible by constitutional amendments in 2010 that annulled Temporary Article 15 of the constitution, which had granted coup leaders comprehensive immunity from prosecution. Hundreds of members of the parliament from different political parties presented motions to the parliament to start investigation into the March 12th, 1971 Coup by Memorandum, the September 12th, 1980 coup and the February 28th, 1997 post-modern coup. A coup investigation commission was established to look into all aspects of the impact of these coups on legal, political and social life in Turkey. The commission aimed at initiating constitutional amendments to avoid such coups in the future.21 The ground-breaking trial of those behind the 1980 coup started in April 2012, while the one concerning the 1997 coup started in September 2013, with 103 suspects expected to come to the court. Although the Turkish military seemed to have substantial public support in carrying out each coup, it lost a lot of credibility and trust for its violation of political rights, civil liberties and, more significantly, human rights. While the military officers responsible for the 1980 coup are too old and unhealthy to be imprisoned, the perpetrators of February 28th coup will probably receive long prison terms. 

Domestic and foreign political interventions by the military transformed the power struggle between the AK Party and the army into an open conflict

Second, due to a flourishing economy, which achieved economic growth of an average rate of 7.5% annually, an increase in average per capita income, attracted an unprecedented level of foreign direct investment, and survived the financial crisis of 2008, the AK Party increased its votes in three consecutive elections. Moreover, the party was able to strengthen its power and support due to its delivery of better social services, particularly in health care and housing (albeit through its formidable grassroots network and with governmental institutions), infrastructure improvement in poorer urban districts and prioritization of the rights of Kurds and non-Muslims. In addition, the AK Party’s attempts to be a role model in the Middle East made it a credible ally in the eyes of the Western world. All these accomplishments led to the consolidation of the AK Party’s power, which made it very difficult for the military to intervene. In contrast, each coup was initiated against either weak authoritarian governments or fragmented coalition governments that lost control over an economic crisis or law and order.

Planned activities included blowing up mosques during Friday prayers, setting off terrorist acts and assassinating political figures

The strengthening of the AK Party’s political power, which led to the rise of a counter-elite of pro-Islamic conservatives and liberals, weakened the political influence of the military’s secularist allies in the judiciary, politics and the media, as well as certain sections of society. The newly emerging conservative Muslim elite has become influential in the economy, political society, the media and the judiciary, replacing the military’s allies in elite bureaucratic circles and state-favored industries.22 The military had maintained its strength and justified its political role by alerting its allies about the danger of communist ideologies throughout the 1970s, and Islamic reactionary and Kurdish separatist threats throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. However, once these threats ceased to exist or were taken under governmental control through desecuritization policies, the military’s power in politics started to erode. 

Until recently, the government’s desecuritization policies, which removed security issues from the military’s sphere of control by reducing their threatening conditions, have had a significant impact on reducing the military’s domestic and foreign policy influence. The AK Party first focused on desecuritizing significant threats that the military had been too sensitive about to leave to civilian authorities: the rise of political Islam and the Kurdish separatist movement, as well as problematic relations with neighbors. Although one can observe that, with the coup plans that led to Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, the government was not very convincing when it desecuritized the rise of political Islam. Concerning the rise of Kurdish separatism, the AK Party government seemed genuinely determined to end PKK attacks by resolving the issue peacefully. In this respect, its project of ‘democratic openings’, which started in 2009 and is currently called the ‘democratic resolution process’ (resolution of the Kurdish issue), is nowadays taking a new turn towards initiating more political rights and civil liberties for the Kurdish population in return for ending the PKK’s armed struggle and the withdrawal of armed Kurdish groups from Turkey. Despite recently emerging stumbling blocks (e.g. Turkish support for the Syrian opposition, the change of governments in Iraq and Iran’s support for the Assad government in Syrian civil war) that emerged between the Turkish government and its neighbors, which had harmonious relations throughout most of the 2000s, the government controlled decision-making concerning recent threats by referring to, rather than loyally following, the expert opinions of the military.23

Third, in addition to the loss of its most significant institutional mechanisms through the EU reforms, the military continued to lose more formal powers, leading to the further erosion of its political impact. The most significant among these changes was the constitutional amendment of September 2010 to limit the jurisdiction of military courts to military service and military duties. Even the dismissal of military staff by the Supreme Military Council was opened to judicial review. Crimes against state security, the constitutional order and the functioning of this order were placed under the jurisdiction of civilian courts. In February 2010, the government curbed another formal institution through which the military had exerted power, the secret protocol on Security, Public Order and Assistance Units (commonly called EMASYA). This protocol had permitted the military to conduct operations concerning internal security matters without the consent of civilian authorities.24 

In order to give the civilians an upper hand in the fight against terror, the parliament adopted a law establishing an Undersecretariat for Public Order and Security under the Ministry of the Interior in February 2010. The new unit’s job was to produce new anti-terror policies with the help of personnel it recruited from the National Intelligence Organization, the General Staff, the gendarmerie and the police department. The law also established an Intelligence Assessment Center to strengthen intelligence-sharing between security institutions. A regulation on the internal audit and management of movable properties of the armed forces, the national intelligence agency and the national policy was adopted in July 2010. The Law on the Court of Accounts was implemented in December 2010 to increase civilian oversight over military expenditures. Another regulation enacted in August 2012 gave parliament the right to approve the publication of the Turkish Court of Accounts’ external audit reports related to security, defense and intelligence institutions.25 Civilians have also become involved in planning the National Security Policy Document (Milli Güvenlik Siyaset Belgesi – MGSB), which determines the country’s national interests, identifies national threat perceptions and designs policies to deal with them. The MGSB, commonly known as the “red book”, used to be prepared by the office of the Chief of General Staff and the MGK without conferring with parliament, and the cabinet and government were forced to follow its decisions without opposition. Now, however, the government is actively involved in determining the threats to the country and the methods that should be followed to respond to these dangers.26

One last crucial policy which aimed at subordinating the military to civilian oversight was introduced in July 2013. Its purpose was to amend the Turkish Armed Forces Internal Service Law. Although Article 35 defined the duty of the Turkish Armed Forces ‘to protect the Turkish homeland, constitution and the Republic,’ it has always been interpreted by the military officers as protecting the country from enemies abroad and within, thereby giving the military the duty to protect the country from internal threats through coups. In its amended form, the military’s mission is more narrowly defined as “defending Turkish soil against external dangers or threats, empowering the military to ensure deterrence, fulfilling missions abroad with the Turkish Grand National Assembly’s authorization and helping to maintain international peace,”27 which reduces its scope to intervene in domestic politics. Moreover, it also strengthens the involvement of the parliament in the military’s operations. 



Civil-Military Relations during the AK Party Era: Major Challenges

As already stated in the introduction, the subordination of the military to civilian control and its commitment to a democratic constitutional order is essential to achieve democratic consolidation. The military’s decreasing political influence appears to be moving Turkish civil-military relations towards a democratic model, as the Turkish Armed Forces, stripped of a number of its formal and informal powers, seems to have been subordinated to civilian political authority. As Richard Kohn explains, to achieve civilian control “all decisions of government, including national security, are to be made or approved by officials outside the professional armed forces, in a democracy, by popularly elected officeholders or their appointees.”28 Currently, the AK Party government has asserted civilian supremacy over the military and the party’s political cadres are making all governmental decisions, including the formulation and implementation of defense policy and national security, while drawing on the military’s expert opinions. For example, in the late 2000s, the military has obeyed the decisions of the civilian government in the protocols signed with Armenia, the improvement of relations with Northern Iraq, the negotiations between the leaders of the Turkish and Greek communities in Cyprus and regarding relations with Israel.29 At present, the government dominates Turkish foreign policy towards Syria by making decisions as to whether Turkey will respond to Syrian cross-border attacks or its regime’s use of chemical weapons. The Turkish government is also in charge of the democratic resolution process aiming to reach a peaceful agreement with Kurdish leaders in Turkey. 

Desecuritization policies redefined the military’s sphere of control and reduced the military’s influence domestic and foreign policy decisions

However, the subordination of the military to civilian political authority does not by itself make Turkish civil-military relations democratic. To achieve genuinely democratic civil-military relations, as already stated an appropriate balance of power must be established between the civilian government and the armed forces. As mentioned in the introduction, while the military, which holds the coercive power to protect the country, must not use this power for any reason against its own people and must abandon a state of mind that directs it to such interventions, the civilians, while having authority over the armed forces, are not supposed to treat them unfairly. However, there are shortcomings on both sides. On the one hand, despite the military’s evident acceptance of the government’s policies, it does not appear to be altering its mindset of having the national duty to be the ultimate guardian of the state and protect the Republic from internal and external threats. The national security culture is deeply rooted in the Turkish military and maintains its potency due to ongoing ethnic separatism, as well as regional security challenges. As stated by Ali Karaosmanoğlu, this relation is shaped by “military doctrine, historical experiences, security culture and the military’s mindset.”30 The civilians, on the other hand, have failed to ensure a fair trial for military officers and the others accused in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, at least according to former senior military officers, secularist circles, parts of the media and some civil society organizations.31 

In an attempt to analyze the military’s mindset, Aydınlı identifies two types of military officers. The traditional conservatives/absolutists view the Turkish military as the ultimate guardian of the status quo, and favor rapid and military-directed steps toward modernization. The progressives/gradualists consider the military’s mission as guarding the ongoing transformation and modernization of the nation. They regard coups and other harsh actions as counterproductive, preferring to work with civilians to achieve modernization.32 Along the same line, Tanel Demirel also classifies Turkish officers in two groups. The first consists of those officers who recognize that given current changing dynamics, it is difficult to follow former methods of initiating coups or manipulating civil society in order to watch over and protect the Turkish Republic. This group prefers to adopt the controlled change model, making it open to reconsidering religion-state relations and the Kurdish question from different perspectives. The second group is formed of those officers who prefer to continue with the same military tutelary regime institutionalized during the Cold War, even by resorting to coups to maintain its dominance.33 Similarly, Ali Karaosmanoğlu points out how Turkish military officers believed that subordination to civilian politicians would prejudice their role of guardianship and even the most-democratically oriented generals, such as one of the former Chiefs of Staff General Hilmi Özkök, were not able to get over with this predicament.34 In other words, the internalization of the principle of civilian supremacy over the armed forces has not been adopted by the military officers.35

Despite the tremendous progress towards the democratization of civil-military relations in Turkey, these categorizations indicate that hard-liners still exist in the military. As long as their mindset and embedded ideas do not change, Turkey will not easily achieve genuine democratic civil-military relations.

The military’s organizational culture actually defines its collective identity, which shapes its behavior in the political system and it is revealed in its military training and education.36 This training and education, which falls under the military’s absolute bureaucratic and ideological control, currently indoctrinates military students into the guardianship role of Kemalist principles and reforms. Military cadets think that they form a privileged class in Turkish society with every right to intervene politically whenever they perceive any deviation from accepted principles and reforms. Due to the strongly rooted and institutionalized tutelary inclination in the military, the transformation of its thinking and organizational culture is essential to decrease the likelihood of future military interventions.37 

The other significant shortcoming from the civilian side, at least according to top military commanders,38 secularist circles, civil society organizations, various international organizations and a significant faction of the media, is the judicial system’s inappropriate handling of the investigations and trials, including misapplication of criminal procedures, in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases. According to critics, such practices have so far diverted attention from the real opportunity provided by these trials, namely to allow Turkey to escape from decades of military tutelage and achieve democratic civil-military relations with the firm subordination of the military to civilian control. By revealing the so-called ‘deep state’, these cases should have aimed at improving the functioning of democratic institutions and the rule of law in Turkey. However, as noted in the EU’s 2011 and 2012 Progress Reports on Turkey, the secrecy of the investigations, restrictions on access to certain evidence referred to in the indictments, the failure to give detailed grounds for decisions on pre-trial detention, and the excessively long and catch-all indictments have raised concerns about the rights of the defendants and the fairness of the trials.39 

Concerning the Balyoz case, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) also criticized the defense’s inability to call witnesses, the court’s refusal to appoint experts to assess the validity of digital evidence and the lack of confidential attorney-client communications.40 Moreover, the confiscation of an unpublished book as evidence of a crime has violated press freedom in Turkey. The sudden reassignment of three specially authorized prosecutors and the Deputy Director of Intelligence for Istanbul, who was in charge of the Ergenekon case in 2011, were signs of the uneasiness of the judicial authorities with the handling of the investigations.41 

Overall, the conduct of the investigations and trials has eroded the judicial system’s impartiality and legality, which has increased the military’s distrust of the civilian government. Given these issues, shortcomings on both the military and civilian side need to be addressed in order to establish trust between the two units. A new conception of military education and training must be implemented to alter the military’s current guardianship mindset, while any future trials of military officers must be conducted under fairer conditions. These steps are essential, as the current uneasiness in relations between civilians and the military may hinder the establishment of fully democratic civil-military relations in Turkey.



Concluding Remarks

Civil-military relations in Turkey have entered a new period after a dramatic transformation that could not have been dreamed of only 15 years ago. Due to EU-mandated reforms, the military first lost the formal tutelary powers it had gained after each coup, followed by its informal mechanisms, including political statements and briefings, due to the erosion of its credibility in the recently concluded Ergenekon and Balyoz and the 1980 and 1997 coup trials. These trials have strengthened democracy in Turkey by making it more difficult for the military to attempt to overthrow a popularly elected government ever again. Turkey has moved closer to democratic civil-military relations, where the democratically elected government can formulate and implement both general and defense policies without interference from the military. The civilian government still relies on the expert opinions of the military, as Turkey lives with constant domestic and international security threats. However, it is now the civilians who make the final decisions concerning these threats and how to deal with them. 

The military’s decreasing political influence appears to be moving Turkish civil-military relations towards a more democratic model

However, there are few weaknesses in this apparent shift towards fully democratic civil-military relations. One concerns changing the military’s firmly-rooted institutional mindset of being the guardian of the state and the problem of non- internalization of civilian control in the military. The second issue relates to the just treatment of military officers in civilian trials. Once the military education system has been reformed so that military graduates are no longer indoctrinated into the guardianship role and military officers and secularist circles are able to start trusting the judicial system, perhaps the two most important stumbling blocks to democratic civil-military relations can be overcome.

Important institutional issues, such as those mentioned in the 2012 EU Progress Report, must be resolved through changes in regulations and constitutional amendments. These include further reforms of the military justice system, civilian oversight of the Gendarmerie, transparency and accountability of the security sector, exposure of the details of off-budget military expenditure, amendment of the Law on Provincial Administrations, reform of the dual civilian and military court systems, changes to the composition and powers of the Supreme Military Council, and placing the Chief of the General Staff under the Prime Minister rather than the Minister of Defense.42 

One final significant issue relates to the determination of the civilians to resolve the Kurdish question peacefully through democratic resolution process. PKK terror and the way it was dealt by the military have harmed Turkish political and economic life for decades, while costing the lives of tens of thousands of people. Failure of the government to resolve this sensitive and complicated issue may lead to a reversal of the current fall in PKK attacks and violence in the country, which in turn could increase nationalist sentiment and revival of its deeply rooted national security culture, leading to the military’s involvement in politics. 




  1. See Larry Diamond, “Introduction: In Search of Consolidation,” in Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies eds., Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner, Yun-han Chu and Hung-mao Tien, (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), xxi-xxxvi. 
  2. Ibid., xxviii.
  3. For this argument see Peter D. Feaver, “Civil Military Relations,” Annual Reviews Political Science, Vol. 2 (1999), pp. 211-13.
  4. Zeki Sarıgıl also makes a similar argument on Turkish civil-military relations in his “work-shirk configurations in a civil–military context” framework. See Zeki Sarıgil, “Turkish Military: Principal or Agent?” Armed Forces & Society, (2012), pp. 16-18; For the argument of unfair treatment of military members by the judiciary in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases see Müge Aknur, “Towards More Democratic Civil-Military Relations in Turkey,” L’Europe en formation, (Journal of Studies on European Integration and Federalism), No: 367 (Spring 2013).
  5. For other classifications of Turkish civil-military relations during AK Party government, see See Ümit Cizre, “Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey,” Ümit Cizre (ed), Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey, The Making of the Justice and Development Party (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 132-171; William Hale and Ergun Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy, and Liberalism in Turkey, (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 80-98.
  6. Although secularism refers to the separation of the mosque and the state, in the Turkish context, more often the French concept, which requires the subordination of religion to the state, has been practiced. Nationalism, with its focus on strengthening the Turkish nation-state, has also emphasized the territorial integrity of the Turkish state.
  7. Zeki Sarıgil considers the period between 1924-1960 as civilocracy, characterized by civilian supremacy and the relegation of the military to a secondary position vis-a`-vis the ruling Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi –CHP). However, since the CHP was dominated by former military officers, this author considers this period as falling under the influence of the military. Sarıgil also recognizes this issue by citing Huntington’s statement that “CHP came out of the womb of the army.” Sarıgil, “Turkish Military,” pp. 6-8; For a detailed analysis of this period see William Hale, “The Turkish Republic and its Army, 1923-1960,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2011), pp. 191-201.
  8. In his principal-agent framework, Zeki Sarıgil describes this period as militocracy, in which the military started to play the role of watchdog within the political system. See Sarıgil, “Turkish Military,” pp. 8-9. Also see Aydınlı, “Turkey under the AKP,” pp. 101-102; Tanel Demirel, “2000’li Yıllarda Asker ve Siyaset, Kontrollü Değişım ile Statüsko arasındaki Türk Ordusu,” SETA Analiz, (February 2010), p.6, retrieved October 3, 2013,
  9. For a comprehensive analysis of institutional mechanisms through which the military exerted its power in politics see Ümit Cizre-Sakallıoğlu, “The Anatomy of the Turkish Military’s Political Autonomy,” Comparative Politics, vol. 29, no. 2 (January 1997), pp. 151-166. For an in depth analysis of these departments, groups and centers, and their impact on Turkish politics, see Gencer Özcan, “Türk Dış Politikasında Algılamalar. Karar Alma ve Oluşum Süreci,” Faruk Sönmezoğlu (ed), Türk Dış Politikasının Analizi (İstanbul: Der Yayınları, 2004), pp. 845, 854-856; İlhan Uzgel, “TDP’nin Oluşturulması,” Türk Dış Politikası, 1919-1980, Baskın Oran (ed), Vol.1, 10th Edition, (İstanbul: İletişim Yayıncılık, 2004),pp. 87-88.
  10. Zeki Sarıgil, “Civil-Military Relations beyond Dichotomy: With Special Reference to Turkey,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2011), pp. 269-270.
  11. Cizre, “Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey,” p. 134; Gareth Jenkins, “Symbols and Shadow-Play: Military–JDP Relations 2002–4,” Hakan Yavuz (ed), The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Utah: University of Utah Press, 2006), pp. 185, 188.
  12. Jenkins, “Symbols and Shadow-Play,” p. 194.
  13. For more details concerning the constitutional amendments and harmonization packages, see “Political Reforms in Turkey,” Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Secretariat General for EU Affairs, Ankara, 2007, retrieved September 6, 2013. 
  14. The Gülen Movement led by Fethullah Gülen to spread Islamist thought, has built more than 1,000 schools all over the world. National View (Milli Görüş) is considered as a strongly conservative religious community in Europe.
  15. However, as part of Sixth Harmonization Package in summer 2003, the AK Party government removed Article 8 of the “Law for the Struggle against Terrorism” of 1991, which had made it an offence to make oral propaganda as support to those that are considered terrorists. 
  16. For a detailed analysis of the Turkish Armed Forces use of institutional mechanisms, see Uğur Burç Yıldız, “Avrupa Birliği Sürecinde Türkiye’de Sivil-Asker İlişkileri: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi Dönemi,” unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Dokuz Eylül University, Social Sciences Institute, European Studies Program, 2010, Ch.5, pp. 132-184.
  17. 2008 European Progress Report states that the Şemdinli bombing is concerned with the bombing of a bookshop that took place in the heavily Kurdish populated southeastern town of Şemdinli in November 2005 in which one person was killed and others were injured. When the case involved high-ranking military commanders, as a result of General Staff’s critics of the indictment and in April 2006, the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors dismissed the Şemdinli prosecutor from office. European Commission Turkey 2008 Progress Report, retrieved September 9, 2013, /enlargement/pdf/press_corner/key-documents/ reports_nov_2008/turkey_progress_report_en.pdf
  18. Hale and Özbudun, Islamism, Democracy, and Liberalism in Turkey, pp. 90. 
  19. Cizre, “Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey,” pp. 147-148.
  20. For an in depth analysis of these coup plots, see Gareth Jenkins, Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Silk Road Studies, Silk Road Paper, August 2009.
  21. “Meclis Araştırma Raporu,” Cilt 1, (Kasım 2012) [Parliament Investigation Report Vol. 1, (November 2012)], pp. iii-xxv. Retrieved on October 11, 2013,
  22. Ahmet Kuru, “The Rise and Fall of Military Tutelage in Turkey: Fears of Islamism. Kurdism, and Communism,” Insight Turkey, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2012), p. 39; see Ersel Aydınlı, “Turkey under the AKP: Civil Military Relations Transformed,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 23, No. 1 (2012), p. 103; Demirel, “2000’li Yıllarda Asker ve Siyaset,” p. 7; Mehmet Bardakçı, “Coup Plots and the Transformation of Civil-Military Relations under AKP Rule,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3 (2013), p. 415. 
  23. For more details concerning the desecuritization policies of AK Party see Bardakçı, “Coup Plots,” p. 413. 
  24. European Commission, Turkey 2010 Progress Report, pp. 10-11, retrieved September 9, 2013, 
  25. “New parliamentary anti-terror unit angers CHP,” Hürriyet, 18.02.2010, retrieved Sept. 8, 2013,; Turkey 2010 Progress Report, pp. 10-11; Turkey 2011 Progress Report, p. 13; Turkey 2012 Progress Report, p. 12, retrieved September 9, 2013.
  26. The focus of the MGSBs switched from the communist threat during the Cold War period to PKK separatist terror and the rise of irtica-religious reactionaryism throughout the 1990s. While the 2005 MGSB included PKK terror and irtica as domestic threats, the 2010 MGSB excluded irtica as a domestic threat, merely referring to “radical groups exploiting religion”. For details, see Özcan, “Türkiye Dış Politika Oluşum Sürecinde Algılamalar,” pp. 855-6; Uzgel, “TDP’nin Oluşturulması,” pp. 87-88; Gencer Özcan, “Milli Güvenlik Kurulu,” Ümit Cizre (ed), Almanak Türkiye 2005, Güvenlik Sektörü ve Demokratik Gözetim, DCAF-TESEV Güvenlik Sektörü Çalışmaları Dizisi, Özel Yayın, (İstanbul: TESEV, 2006), pp. 38-40
  27. “Turkey’s Democracy Fortified through Article 35 Amendment,” Sabah, July 2, 2013. Retrieved Octo­ber 11, 2013,; Menekşe Tokyay, “Analysts hail bill to redefining military’s role,” SES Türkiye, July 07, 2013. Retrieved October 11, 2013; 
  28. Richard Kohn, “How Democracies Control the Military,” Journal of Democracy, V. 8, No. 4 (October 1997), p. 142.
  29. Demirel, “2000’li Yıllarda Asker ve Siyaset,” pp. 19-20.
  30. Ali Karaosmanoğlu, “Transformation of Turkey’s Civil-Military Relations Culture and International Environment,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2011), p. 260; Nilüfer Narlı, “Concordance and Discordance in Turkish Civil-Military Relations, 1980-2002,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2011), pp. 215-225. Narlı examines the periods of concordance and discordance between the Turkish civilian governments and the military until 2002. For the shortcomings of the civilian side argument, see Sarıgil, “Turkish Military,” p. 17.
  31. For a similar argument on the military’s unfair treatment, see Aknur, “Towards More Democratic Civil-Military Relations in Turkey,” p. 47.
  32. Ersel Aydınlı, “A Paradigmatic Shift for the Turkish Generals and an end to the Coup Era in Turkey,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 63, No. 4 (2009), pp. 587-588; Aydınlı, “Turkey under the AKP,” pp. 102-103.
  33. Demirel, “2000’li Yıllarda Asker ve Siyaset,” pp. 13 and 16.
  34. Karaosmanoğlu, “Transformation of Turkey’s Civil-Military Culture,” p. 260. Aydınlı makes the same argument and points out this mindset in the speeches of more moderate Chiefs of General Staff Hilmi Özkök and Işık Koşaner concerning the planned changes (at the time) on Article 35. While Özkök was against the change, arguing that such an article was needed for the military to limit the excessive policies of the civilians, Koşaner claimed that, even if the article were removed, the military would still continue its natural, historical mission [protecting the country from internal and external threats]. Aydınlı, “Turkey under the AKP,” pp.104-105.
  35. Metin Heper, “Civil-Military Relations in Turkey: Towards a More Liberal Model,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2011), p. 249.
  36. Sarıgil, “Civil-Military Relations beyond Dichotomy,” p. 273. Sarıgil, who analyzes civil-military relations from a principal-agent framework, sees the military’s organizational culture as a crucial condition to establish civilian control of the armed forces. He also formulates a framework that examines “work-shirk configurations in a civil–military context”. According to this framework, when both military and civilians work, effective civilian control that corresponds to Samuel Huntington’s civilian control can be achieved. in contrast, working of the civilians and shirking of the military leads to friction between civilian and military leaderships. When civilians shirk and the military works, this can lead to Huntington’s subjective control, in which civilians do not pay attention to national security and politicize the military. Finally, when both parties shirk, that can lead to political disorder. When the shortcomings are on the civilian side, see Sarıgil’s analysis of his third quadrant, where the civilians shirk while the military is working. Sarıgil, “Turkish Military,” pp. 16-18.
  37. Aydınlı, “Turkey under the AKP,” p. 102; Aydınlı, “A Paradigmatic Shift for the Turkish Generals,” p. 586; Demirel, “2000’li Yıllarda Asker ve Siyaset,” p. 15; Also See “Meclis Araştırma Raporu,” Cilt 1, (Kasım 2012), p. 132; Bardakçı, “Coup Plots,” pp. 423-424. Bardakçı argues that military ideology had been a major obstacle hindering democratic consolidation in Turkey, since any deviation from the Turkish and secular character of the nation-state was considered to be opposed to Kemalist ideology and any public assertions of Kurdish identity or Islamic cultural symbols were seen as a threat to security.
  38. For a detailed analysis of the Turkish top commanders’ (Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ and Işık Koşaner) reaction to the handling of the cases, see Sarıgil, “Turkish Civil-Military,” pp. 18-19.
  39. Turkey 2011 Progress Report, p. 6; Turkey 2012 Progress Report, p. 7.
  40. “Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its sixty-sixth session, 29 April-3 May 2012,” United Nations, General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Working group on Arbitrary Detention, No. 6/2013 (Turkey), A/HRC/WGAD/2013/6, retrieved September 2, 2013. ungwad_turkey_sledgehammer_opinion_06_2013.pdf
  41. Turkey 2011 Progress Report, p. 6; Turkey 2012 Progress Report, p. 7.
  42. Turkey 2012 Progress Report, p. 13.

Labels »  

We use cookies in a limited and restricted manner for specific purposes. For more details, you can see "our data policy". More...