Everything We Should Know about the Turkish Army

Anadolu/Fırat Yurdakul

The historic role of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is unquestionable in terms of exercising power. Since Ataturk’s leadership up until 2010, it guaranteed democracy and security in Turkey and the existence of the secular state. In the last few decades, the TSK staged four (two armed and two indirect) interventions, as the reigning governments were not able to cope with the serious domestic political crises, or simply because they were eager to achieve centralisation of power. They prevented politicians’ autocratic aspirations in 1960, put an end of extremist groups’ clash in 1971, took up the gauntlet during the Kurdish speraratist wave in 1980 and terminated the permanent strengthening of Islamism in 1997. The e-coup of 2007 was also a public intervention, during which an attempt was made to influence the outcome of the presidential elections.

According to Zeki Sarigil1, four statuses exist in civil-military relations – professional, national, predatory praetorian and popular praetorian army. The professional category is fully under civilian control, but the the national army and the state are inseperable because leaders often get political roles and positions. The predatory praetorian army is eager to come into power and control the whole society. In this theoretical framework, it can be said that the TSK is popular praetorian because the military intervened in politics only when the internal political stability or Ataturk’s secular state was in danger. Furthermore, most of the interventions have taken place behind the scenes, coups only ever happened in the cases mentioned above; the army never aimed for exclusive power, and it always retreated to the barracks after peace had been restored.

Due to the preservation of kemalist heritage, the TSK has always made serious efforts to create a totally secular army, where minimal suspicion of Islamist sympathy was enough to get anyone sacked – 745 officers have been suspended between the years 1995 and 2000, and a major clean-up followed the Justice and Developement Party’s (AKP) victory. The military has its own budget which means serious influence and independence from the state. Alongside public contributions, it has four holdings as a source of financing the TSK which have evolved into a conglomerate over the years. On paper, OYAK (Armed Forces Assistance Corporation) is a gargantuan credit union and aid fund. Under CEO Coskun Ulusoy, many large companies assimilated, including banks and oil companies. Moreover, it had been the market leader of car industry via OYAK-Renault and became a player on the international stage. The army has influence in the OYAK management; the chief of general staff appoints three of OYAK’s seven-person executive board. This year, retired Lt. Gen. Necati Ozbahadir suddenly resigned, immediately followed by Ulusoy’s resignation. Suleyman Savas Erdem, known to be close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was appointed as CEO. The directional changes in the management seem like a ‘civilian coup’ and the government could control the holding in the future.

Besides their newly found power in the economy, the TSK also gained significant influence in decision-making. The constitution – which was adopted in the 1961 referendum – had created a new institution: the National Security Council (MGK). The MGK’s role was confirmed by the events of the 1982 coup. Essentially, the MGK operated as an organisation responsible for decision preparation, whose president was the president of the Republic, and its members included the prime minister, the Foreign and Interior ministers, the Secretary of Defence, the chief of general staff, the land forces, the air force, the navy and the commander-in-chief of the gendarmerie.

Paradoxically, the army that is considered to be the founder of democracy has always been a great dilemma for the EU during the admission procedure, which is the reason behind the union’s support for Erdogan’s attempts to significantly reduce the political influence of the armed forces. The first of these actions were implemented over the course of the second year of Erdogan’s presidency. The MGK came under civil control and lost its authority of inspection over major institutions, leading to many of its representatives being pulled out of their seats in the education and media supervision committees. The tension was further escalated when Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s mandate expired and was therefore lawfully unable to apply for the same position again. The reigning party’s candidate was Abdullah Gül, who publicly announced his desire to see the tie between religion and state being strengthened. This was immediately followed by the e-memorandum of the armed forces, declaring their willingness to defend the secular state. Gül was elected and the army withdrew from the domestic political sphere.

Under Ataturk’s leadership, a cult evolved towards the TSK. The Turkish society always trusted the army more than it did other national institutions and its serious prestige counted in itself. In the middle of 2008, the Ergenekon prosecution started, which was allegedly a conspiracy to overthrow the government of ‘muslim democrats’. Hundreds of people had been taken into custody or were formally charged, including former chief of the general staff Ilker Basbug and his predecessor Yasar Büyükanit – the leaders of two previous coups. The second criminal investigation of military officers – called Sledgehammer – was launched in January 2010. In the previous year, most of the suspects were acquitted because of fake documents and lack of evidence.

Tend to trust in the army

Tend not to trust in the army

Don’t know

10. 2004




10. 2005




09. 2006




10. 2007




04. 2008




11. 2009




11. 2010




Source: Eurobarometer Survey, European Union 2004-2010. Available online: http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/PublicOpinion/index.cfm/General/index

chartEurobarometer surveys demonstrate that since 2008 there has been a significant drop in the level of trust in the TSK, while a number of undecided people stagnated. Erdogan killed two birds with one stone because he could discredit the army in the eyes of many Turks and replace many military officers with people close to him.

Reducing the influence of the secular elite took place on an institutional level too, since a referendum of constitutional amendment was held in September 2010, which included propositions on limiting the influence of the military. The participation rate was 77% and 58% of the voters voted with ’yes’. The amendment changed the status of the TSK and since then, as a result, the civil tribunal is authorised to impeach those in the service of the armed forces.

Slowly but surely, Erdogan completely weakened the de facto immune system of the secular state, therefore it can be justifiably claimed that a new TSK was responsible for the coup attempt.

1 Sarigil, Zeki (2011) “Civil-Military Relations Beyond Dichotomy: With Special Reference to Turkey”, [in:] Turkish Studies, vol 2.

Bertram Marek
Republikon Institute