x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Resignations are not final chapter for Turkish army

The civilian government in Ankara has consolidated power that is unprecedented in modern Turkey's history. But while the generals may have stepped down, the conspiracies leave clues about the challenges ahead.

A strong civilian government in Ankara is still something of a novelty. On Friday, it was clear how much things have changed. The army chief of staff, General Isik Kosaner, and three other senior commanders resigned their posts en masse; the new acting chief of the armed forces, General Necdet Ozel, may be the first commander who is truly answerable to the civilian government.

For many Turks, it will have been a long time coming. After coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, the military has more often dominated politics than risen above the fray. Crimes committed during the 1980 unrest that are blamed on the military, including extra-judicial killings, torture and unwarranted detentions, continue to haunt the country.

In recent years the ascendant star of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Part (AKP) has pushed the military into the background. In June, the AKP won a record third election, a dominating performance within the democratic process.

The electoral mandate and widespread popularity of Mr Erdogan's party make it unlikely that the military would - or could - reassert its old grip on power. But the AKP certainly has its enemies. More than 500 people, including 250 serving or former officers, have been arrested over shadowy coup conspiracies. "It is not possible to accept that the arrests comply with international rules of law, justice and values of conscience," Gen Kosaner said at his resignation. He added that the army was being treated "like a gang of criminals".

It might be argued that the older generation of generals is on shaky ground when arguing about the rule of law. Almost 10 per cent of the senior serving officer corps face charges of plotting to violently overthrow the government. Whether true or not, the scope of these conspiracies - known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, or "Sledgehammer" - clouds some of the enthusiasm about the consolidation of civilian rule.

If that many officers have plotted bombings and murders, as charged, there are obvious challenges still ahead. If the charges are false, there are serious questions about a possible AKP-led witchhunt. Trials so far have failed to come to a convincing conclusion either way.

Gen Kosaner was thought to have better relations with the AKP than many of his colleagues. His resignation is being seen as a symbol of the army's diminished power and a new era of Turkish politics. But the fact that he felt compelled to resign shows that there is still deep discontent under the surface.