ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The resignations of Turkey’s top four military commanders will enable the ruling AK Party to consolidate its power over the armed forces, reinforcing its gains in a decade-long struggle to exert control over the once-omnipotent military.
The cost of that victory will be heightened polarization in Turkey between the government, which has roots in political Islam, and its staunchly secularist opponents. Such a prospect may further unsettle already fragile financial markets.
With 250 military personnel, including dozens of generals, in jail on charges of conspiring against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government, the resignations will also fuel concerns about the operational efficiency of NATO’s second-biggest army.
Subordination of the military to greater civilian control will be welcomed by many as a sign of growing democratization in the European Union-candidate country, but will stir fears that Erdogan is gaining excessive power over state institutions.
“We’ve got a situation in Turkey where we’ve had over the last few years almost a de-institutionalization of the Turkish state, where everything has become more politicized and it is a danger for any state,” said security analyst Gareth Jenkins.
The armed forces, which have staged three coups and pushed Turkey’s first Islamist-led government from power in 1997, are no longer seen as able or willing to intervene in politics.
New government plans to boost the role of the police in the fight against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas have also pointed to a scaling-back of the military’s power.
Fresh from a resounding election victory in which the AKP won a third term in office with 50 percent of the vote, Erdogan is well placed to push ahead with plans to overhaul a constitution written under military tutelage after a 1980 coup.
AK Party critics see moves to weaken secularist institutions such as the army as a factor behind investigations into the alleged “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” plots to overthrow the government.
The generals’ sudden departure, ahead of a next week’s key meeting of the Supreme Military Council (YAS) to decide on military promotions, will inflame public suspicions about the motives behind these long-running court cases.
“The people will hold the political authorities responsible, because there is a widespread belief that an operation has been conducted to discredit the Turkish Armed Forces in the course of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations,” said Gungor Mengi, the chief columnist in Vatan newspaper.
Outgoing armed forces commander General Isik Kosaner took a similar line in a farewell message to “my esteemed comrades in arms.”
“They tried to create the impression that the Turkish Armed Forces was a criminal organization and ... the biased media encouraged this with all kinds of false stories, smears and allegations,” Kosaner wrote.
Erdogan has moved quickly to pick Kosaner’s successor, naming paramilitary Gendarmerie commander General Necdet Ozel as new head of land forces and acting deputy chief of general staff.
Disputes over army appointments are seen as a factor in the generals quitting and the government is likely to further assert its will in other promotions at Monday’s YAS meeting. In the past civilian leaders have just rubber-stamped army proposals.
“Just as commanders who fail to greet the prime minister are retired, generals who refuse to shake the hand of the president’s (headscarved) wife miss out on promotion,” said Ergun Babahan from the pro-government Star newspaper.
“This is a turning point in the history of Turkish democracy and of unprecedented importance in terms of the civilian will standing up against military resistance,” he said.
The dwindling power of the generals and the prosecution of hundreds of officers has hit morale in the armed forces as they face an upsurge in clashes in the 27-year-old conflict with the PKK which has killed 40,000 people.
“They have taken in so many (generals) that it has had a devastating impact on morale and a very bad impact on the operational efficiency of the Turkish military,” Jenkins said.
The PKK threat was underlined two weeks ago when the rebels killed 13 Turkish soldiers in an ambush in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir.
The generals’ decision is likely to be applauded by the officer corps who will see it as an honourable stand against the prosecution of their comrades.
“For them I think it is these four commanders falling on their swords and it is seen from the Turkish military corps’ perspective as a very honourable thing to do,” Jenkins said.
However, he said the court investigations have made military personnel reluctant to communicate with each other for fear of being monitored -- an operational handicap.
Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Alistair Lyon