A Fragile Peace: Turkey’s Civil-Military Transformation

A Fragile Peace: Turkey’s Civil-Military Transformation

With the introduction of multiparty politics, and in particular with the adoption of the 1961 constitution, civil-military relations in Turkey came to be characterized by a duality of governance: a powerful military with an autonomous influence over politics alongside a weak civilian government, reduced to a virtual facade by the presence of the military. The military, and the small civilian elite that worked closely with it, basically called the final shots on major issues. Matters of high politics, such as foreign policy, national security and overall strategic vision, were managed by the military-centric “state,” while issues of low politics, such as the economy, daily services, social issues and the like, were left to the civilian-led elected officials of the “government.” Any maneuvering room that existed for the government was restricted to whatever the military-centric state left for it. Through a fairly regular series of coups and resulting military decrees and decisions, the state realm expanded further over the decades at the expense of the governmental realm.

Turkish society seemed to be complicit in this arrangement, based on a special bond between itself and the military. While some bond between society and military is present in many countries, Turkish society honored and idealized its armed forces to an extreme degree, one that could perhaps only occur in a country that had faced existential threats and survived them thanks to the military’s aid and sacrifice. So while in a normal democracy there is a direct connection between society and the political realm, in Turkey, society also maintained an equally powerful link to an autonomous power hub, in this case the military, which did not have to go through or be supervised by the political realm.

In the past decade, however, Turkish civil-military relations have gradually normalized toward a balance more in line with liberal democratic expectations about civilian oversight. The elected government seems to be exercising civilian oversight; the military seems to have accepted its new limitations and subordination; and society seems supportive of all of this. Questions nevertheless remain: Why did the old paradigm of Turkish civil-military relations become unsustainable? What key factors and actors made the change possible? Is the military’s subordination consolidated? What, if anything, is the cost of the precise manner in which the government undertook this democratic transformation? What impact has all of this had on Turkey's emergence and future prospects as a regional and global "hub" power? Finally, are there potential pitfalls to the completion of this democratic transformation in civil-military relations?

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