The days of military coups in Turkey are officially over. Half of all Turkish admirals and one out of ten active duty generals are currently in jail for plotting against the government, and on July 29 the military's chief of staff resigned over a disagreement with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about staff promotions. The same day, the heads of the army, navy, and air force requested early retirement. These developments are a paradigm shift for a country that has experienced constant military meddling and three military coups in the last half century.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of last week's events was that they did not cause any public uproar or panic. Turkey's stock exchange opened to gains last Monday, and the government seems to be going about its business as usual. This is unexpected, as Turkey's armed forces have traditionally been well respected. The military was the first institution of the Ottoman Empire to modernize, adopting Western military strategy, weapons, as well as science and education methods. Almost all modern Turkey's hallowed founding fathers -- the Young Turks and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk -- were military officers determined to westernize and secularize Turkey's government, laws, education system, and even its clothes and alphabet.

Of course, Atatürk's cultural revolution was not universally embraced, especially among the pious rural masses. As a Kemalist slogan from the 1920s put it, the Turkish government ruled "for the people, despite the people." In the 1920s, the military had to suppress more than a dozen Kurdish and religious uprisings. These experiences traumatized the young republic's military leaders and left them suspicious of all things Kurdish and Islamic.

For the officers, then, democracy was a gamble. Kemalism had given the republic a secularist and nationalist political structure. According to the military, this political structure was the "realm of the state" and had to be protected from the "realm of politics." In other words, politics had to be properly monitored to prevent the rise of Islamism or other factions that would not uphold the republic's fundamental principles.

In 1960, 1971, and 1980, Turkey's powerful military launched coups to defend the realm of the state. In 1960, it intervened because it thought the government had become too authoritarian; in 1971 and 1980, it acted to put a stop to rising socialism. And in 1997, the army pushed Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of office in the name of defending secularism. Until recently, the military still routinely interfered in politics through the National Security Council, where the top brass exerted considerable political influence over the civilian cabinet.

The story of the military's fall is also the story of the consolidation of power of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP). Although its roots lay in a banned Islamist party, the AKP was allowed to participate in national elections in 2002. Its victory that year was followed by a tense détente with the military that lasted until 2007. That year, Erdogan nominated Abdullah Gül, a well-respected foreign minister, to the post of president -- a position that, for the military, represented the last inviolable bastion of Kemalist secularism. For the generals, the move crossed a red line. In their eyes, Gül -- a man who once flirted with political Islam and whose wife wears a head scarf -- posed an existential threat to Atatürk's republic.

Soon after Erdogan announced the nomination, Yasar Büyükanit, the Turkish chief of staff, staged what a dumbfounded press dubbed an "e-coup." He posted a warning on the Turkish military's official Web site stating that "if necessary, the Turkish Armed Forces will not hesitate to make their position and stance abundantly clear as the absolute defenders of secularism." His note was a thinly veiled threat that a conventional coup might be in the offing.
Instead of backing off, Erdogan defied the military and called early elections, which he won with a landslide 47 percent of the vote. He appealed to the democratic instincts of the Turkish people and touted his economic record. (Between 2003 and 2007, the AKP government had doubled the country's per capita income, significantly improved its democratic record, and begun accession negotiations with the European Union.) Erdogan quickly swore in Gül as president, and Gül promised to abide by Turkey's secular principles and continue to steer the country toward the European Union. Even so, the top brass refused to salute him during his inaugural visit to parliament and stayed away from his oath-taking ceremony.
Since 2007, the Turkish economy has continued to grow, unemployment is at a record low, and Turkey's global stature has reached new heights. As revolutions shook the Middle East in the spring, reformers in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia cited Turkey as a model democracy. Last June, the AKP won its third consecutive electoral victory, this time with 50 percent of the vote.
In a sense, the generals' resignation was the next logical step in Turkey's political maturation; no true democracy can place the military's will above the people's. But troublingly, the country remains deeply polarized, with members of the opposition ever more concerned about creeping authoritarianism and Islamism. They call the government a civilian dictatorship and deplore its use of the judicial system to neuter the military, the opposition media, and rival political parties.
At the heart of the opposition's argument is a court case against Ergenekon, a shadowy organization with possible ties to the military. The judiciary launched the case in 2007, shortly after AKP's second electoral victory, claiming that Ergenekon had planned a coup. The prosecutor of the case accused hundreds of military officials, journalists, and political activists of being involved. According to leaked documents about the case, the Ergenekon network was allegedly behind a number of bombings and assassinations. It planned to use the chaos as a pretext for a coup.
The main problem with the case is that it has yet to reach a verdict despite the arrest of hundreds of suspects. Critics of the AKP argue that the government is using the case to silence its secular opponents, but the AKP responds that it does not control the judiciary and has itself been the court's regular target; in 2008, the constitutional court came close to banning the AKP party and Erdogan from politics for promoting an Islamist agenda.
Two week's ago, after the military's plans were revealed to appoint or promote 250 soldiers and officers who are awaiting hearings as part of the Ergenekon trial, Erdogan announced that he would not allow the military's scheme to go forward. This prompted the spate of military resignations. The fact that the generals chose to bow out rather than fight Erdogan's decision signals just how much power has shifted from the military to civilians. For his part, Erdogan swiftly named General Necdet Ozel acting chief of staff and commander of ground forces.
Supporters of Erdogan and his party, the AKP, argue that the resignation of the commanders is a sign of Turkish democracy's new maturity and its embrace of Western-style civilian supremacy over the military. Detractors, however, express serious concern about the disappearance of checks and balances that they believe have kept civilian governments from becoming authoritarian.

In fact, Turkey is not yet a liberal democracy. But it is certainly moving in the right direction. Those who argue that the military was an essential check on civilian politics should understand that Turkey is now becoming a "normal" democracy, where elections, public opinion, opposition parties, the parliament, the media, and civil society all exert more power. And unlike the military, these institutions have a legitimate role to play in politics.
Meanwhile, in order to prove that Turkey is not becoming more authoritarian, Erdogan must address the critical challenges facing the country -- the Kurdish question, human rights, and freedom of expression -- by creating a more democratic constitution. If he fails, he will have only himself to blame. For the first time in the republic's history, Turkey's performance is totally in the civilians' hands.

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  • OMER TASPINAR is Professor of National Security at the National War College and a nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe.
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