ISTANBUL // A routine meeting of Turkey's top-ranking officers is turning into a power struggle between the military and the government. The Supreme Military Council (Yas) held the second day of its annual meeting in Ankara yesterday to discuss promotions and dismissals of officers of the armed forces, one of the most powerful institutions in the country.
One expected outcome of the meeting, scheduled to finish tomorrow, is a change of guard at the top of the military. Gen Ilker Basbug, 67, the chief of general staff, has reached retirement age and will be replaced by Gen Isik Kosaner, 64, the current commander of Turkey's land forces. Turkey is a country that has seen four governments pushed from power by the generals in the past 50 years. It is a tradition that the military, and not the government, decides which officers are promoted or dismissed. But this time it is different. While Gen Kosaner's promotion is seen as certain, the military has come under unprecedented pressure to cancel scheduled promotions of 11 generals who have been charged with plotting to bring down the government.
The big question is whether the military leadership will bow to that pressure, thereby accepting that civilian authorities such as the judiciary and the government set limits on what the armed forces can do. The debate about the professional future of the 11 generals reflects the more fundamental issue of the need to strengthen the civilian oversight over the military, a crucial aspect for this EU candidate country.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, presided over the Yas meeting and has reportedly called for a cancellation of the promotions for the 11 generals, but he lacks the power to override appointments wanted by the generals. Abdullah Gul, the president, does have that power because Yas decisions become law only after being signed by the president. In the past, no president has dared veto the military's plans.
This time, it could be different, news reports suggested. "Promotion crisis at YAS," the daily Vatan said in a headline yesterday. The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper reported that Mr Gul had asked Gen Basbug not to go ahead with the promotions, hinting that he would not sign the Yas documents if the 11 generals were promoted. There was no word on how Gen Basbug would react. According to news reports, he complained to the president that the accusations against the officers were part of a smear campaign to discredit the army.
A court in Istanbul recently issued arrest warrants for the generals and 91 other serving and retired officers, with dozens of generals among them. They are to stand trial in December for their suspected participation in a plan, code-named Sledgehammer, that prosecutors said was hatched in 2003 and called for a coup against the religiously conservative government of Mr Erdogan, who is regarded as a dangerous Islamist by many in the strictly secular armed forces.
According to the prosecution, the plotters wanted to bomb a historic mosque in Istanbul and to provoke tensions with Greece in an effort to stir up unrest and prepare the ground for a military coup against Mr Erdogan. Only one of the 102 suspects has been arrested so far. The others have appealed against their arrest warrants. Military officers have been indicted in several cases of suspected coup plots in recent months. Some officers, including retired high-ranking generals, are standing trial as suspected members of Ergenekon, a clandestine network of right-wing activists and military officers who plotted to bring down Mr Erdogan, according to the prosecution. Even one of the officers taking part in the Yas meeting, Gen Saldiray Berk, is a suspect in one of the cases.
Suspected coup plots have dented the military's reputation as an institution that has the country's well-being at heart and have led to an increase of criticism directed against the political role of the armed forces. While the generals see themselves as guardians of the republic's core values such as secularism, critics say they act as a kind of unelected government. "Generals do not only command troops, but lay a claim on commanding Turkey," the columnist Ihsan Dagi wrote yesterday in Today's Zaman, an English-language newspaper that is close to the government. Referring to the debate surrounding the Yas meeting, he added: "If Turkey were a fully functioning democracy, why should we be concerned about a process of bureaucratic appointment?"
Coup accusations are not the only challenge facing Gen Kosaner when he takes over from Gen Basbug at the end of August. Several constitutional amendments designed to further curb the generals' political influence will be put to a referendum on September 12. The military is also struggling to deal with a fresh wave of attacks by Kurdish rebels in south-eastern Anatolia that have killed dozens of soldiers in recent months. Yesterday, railroad officials blamed Kurdish rebels for explosions that derailed eight cars of a train between Divrigi and Erzincan. No one was injured in the attack.