The YAŞ meeting and the referendum

It is simply mind boggling that all promotions and nominees in the Turkish military’s rank and file have been predetermined, at least until 2019, as if these posts were their given right upon graduating from the military academy. This was the argument Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ presented to both the prime minister and the president on the eve of this year’s critical Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) meeting. What a surprise!

While defending 11 generals whose arrests were ordered by a civilian court as part of an investigation into a coup plot, Başbuğ reportedly said they would be passed over for a promotion if they were arrested. This must be very unfortunate for him. How on earth can you justify predetermining top positions so far in advance, barring all external conditions? This type of succession only occurs in monarchies. Even then, history tells us that there are still surprises.

In a democratic country, all government agencies, including military, should be accountable to the law, and promotions should be based on merit and years of service. The military is supposed to serve the civilian authority, whose mandate comes directly from the people. There is simply no justification, whatsoever, for the generals, along with dozens of other military officers, refusing to surrender to authorities in the face of a bench order for their arrest on July 23.

It may turn out that this year’s YAŞ meeting could be a perfect opportunity for the civilian authority to finally eliminate the alleged anti-democratic formations within Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). This would send a strong signal to all officers that no one is above the law. President Abdullah Gül’s sternly warned Başbuğ in a private meeting at the Çankaya presidential palace that promoting the suspected generals would send the wrong messages to the public. “They will appear privileged and protected in the face of the grave accusations being leveled against them in the indictment,” the president said, according to the Turkish media.

The military’s power to deny promotions to these officers is laid out in the law. The TSK personnel law is pretty clear on the promotion of officers who are accused of wrongdoing. Article 65 says that a member of the military who is imprisoned or is being tried cannot be promoted. In addition, Article 82 of the Regulation on the Personal Records of Military Officers requires that an officer’s promotion be cancelled if it was decided on in violation of the law.

But, we all know from past experience how the army in this country has bent the law, pressured higher judiciary to exonerate officers who were caught red-handed or even succeeded in obtaining verdicts that contradicted the spirit and letter of the law. The Ergenekon trial — an ongoing case on a group of people including officers who were accused of trying to topple the government — is the first ever trial to challenge the idea that the TSK is “untouchable.”

The accusations against these officers are not just misdemeanors or simple infractions, like traffic violations. The 10th High Criminal Court examined the prosecutors’ indictments into the Sledgehammer Action Plan, a subversive plot allegedly prepared by an elite group within the military that intended to create social chaos in an attempt to undermine the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and bring about a military coup.

It doesn’t help that the General Staff apparently tried to create safe havens for fugitive generals to prevent their arrest. Several suspects are still at large and are reportedly being sheltered in high-security military installations at the order of the General Staff itself. The public, who is turning an increasingly critical eye to the TSK, does not take kindly to these actions. The once most-trusted institution in the country is now scoring low in pubic opinion polls and increasingly runs the risk of having its reputation tarnished by back-to-back scandals.

From what I hear in Ankara, officers who have stayed clear of shady activities throughout their careers, as well as low-ranking officers, are not happy to see the military involved in a scheme to protect bad apples. One source even told me to watch the ballet boxes coming out of military barracks and residences during the national referendum on Sept. 12. He said the overwhelming majority of the TSK will vote in favor of the constitutional changes simply because the proposed amendments will break the power of the military’s select few and open a path for YAŞ decisions to open for judicial review.

What is more important for military families is that crimes that are not related to an individual’s military duty will be heard in civilian courts rather than military tribunals, where the presiding judge usually favors the wishes of superior officers. And the reason for this is pretty clear: At the end of the day, military judges’ service files are controlled by superior commanding officers, casting suspicion on claims of the judiciary’s independence or impartiality.

As such, it would not surprise me if we get the most “yes” votes from military families. The same can be said for judges and prosecutors in this country. Most are happy to see the eradication of the god-like powers of the few select in the higher judiciary when it comes to promotion and discipline proceedings. They will say yes to changes in the composition of higher judicial bodies, which will then turn into a more democratic, diverse and pluralistic structure.

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