Who's couping now?
After ruling the roost for decades, the tables are slowly turning on Turkey's generals, observes Gareth Jenkins
Turkey's powerful military suffered another blow last week when the country's president approved a package of legal amendments that would allow serving military personnel to be tried in civilian courts. The move has been condemned by the fiercely secularist Turkish military, which regards the amendments as the latest salvo in what it believes is a psychological war of attrition designed to erode its public prestige and influence and clear the way for the gradual Islamisation of the Turkish state.
Under the previous legislation, civilians could be tried for certain offences in military courts even in peacetime, while most offences by serving military personnel automatically fell under the jurisdiction of the military courts. The EU has long been pushing Turkey to harmonise its legislation with that of European countries, where civilians are tried in civilian courts. Under the latest amendments, jurisdiction over civilians has been transferred to the civilian courts, which have also been empowered to prosecute serving military personnel for a number of crimes, including violating the constitution, organising armed groups, attempting to overthrow the civilian government and threats to national security.
Although the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) has defended the legal amendments as prerequisites for EU membership, the manner in which they were passed has raised some disturbing questions. The JDP abruptly passed the amendments in the early hours of 26 June without giving any prior notification. As a result, not only was there no public debate but most of the opposition deputies were not even in the chamber. There was also a striking contrast between the speed and decisiveness with which the JDP pushed through the amendments and its reluctance to pass a very large number of other prerequisites for EU membership or to investigate an increasing number of allegations of corruption involving leading members of the party.
It is not a coincidence that the amendments were passed shortly after the daily newspaper Taraf published what it claimed was a copy of a secret plan by the Turkish military to discredit both the JDP and the followers of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in exile in the US for the last 10 years. It is an open secret that the Turkish General Staff (TGS) monitors Turkish Islamists and, in the past at least, it is known to have drawn up countermeasures to try to limit their growing influence. The publication by Taraf of a photocopy of a plan drawn up by a naval colonel called Dursun Cicek was immediately seized on by the JDP's supporters as proof that the military was trying to undermine the government.
The plan was swiftly denounced as a forgery by the TGS. Although it is quite possible that the TGS really has been drawing up plans to discredit the JDP and the Gulen movement, in this case the alleged photocopy lacked the formatting and numbering system of internal TGS documents and oddly includes measures against both the JDP and the Gulen movement in a single plan. In reality, the two are not only different entities but are monitored separately within the TGS, and any plans to discredit them would likely be drawn up separately.
Coming so soon after what the TGS angrily dismissed as a forgery to try to discredit the military, the amendments to allow military personnel to be tried in civilian courts has been interpreted as another salvo in a psychological war. They fear that a public prosecutor who is sympathetic to the JDP or the Gulen movement will now be able to file politically-motivated charges against a leading member of the armed forces. The Turkish legal system is tortuously slow and inefficient. Cases usually take years, sometimes decades, to be resolved. Under such circumstances, it would not make much difference if a leading commander was eventually acquitted.
In ratifying the amendments, President Gul called on the JDP to pass some measures to address the military's concerns and ensure that its members were protected against politically- motivated prosecutions. But it is unclear when, or if, the JDP will comply. Under Turkish law, the amendments will enter the statute book as soon as they are published in the Official Gazette. Parliament is under no legal obligation to act on Gul's recommendation.
On Monday, the opposition Republican People's Party officially applied to the Turkish Constitutional Court for the annulment of the amendments on the grounds that they were unconstitutional. It is currently unclear whether or not the application will be upheld. But there is little doubt that, even if the court annuls the amendments, the fact that the amendments were passed at all has reinforced the military's suspicions of the JDP. The manner in which the amendments were smuggled through parliament in the dead of night has left some opponents of the military wondering if, instead of moving towards a liberal democracy, Turkey is in danger of swapping one form of authoritarianism for another.