I am not happy about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s habitual waiting until the last minute to make necessary reforms for further democratization in this country or its acting only when it is faced with a systemic crisis triggered by undemocratic challenges. I understand the logic that every crisis presents its own opportunities and may offer a better opportunity for the government to act. But why wait and waste valuable time when we may not have the luxury to afford it in the first place?
Faced with unrelenting resistance by traditional status-quo advocates against necessary reforms, we would be better off in studying and implementing blueprints presented by our international partners. The external factor, albeit one that is set to arouse displeasure from certain circles, may help reduce the friction at home and frame the national debate to a healthy bird’s eye perspective, one that is not restricted by a myopic view of current events. For example, strikingly good analyses have been issued by the European Union, to which Turkey aspires to become a member, as well as recommendations offered by the Council of Europe (CoE), of which Turkey was a founding member. These suggestions portray a snapshot of a to-do list for any government in Turkey, but especially the reformist AK Party.
Take, for example, the latest tension over the promotion of generals between the government and old-school top brass, who do not seem to have any grasp of the changing dynamics in Turkey and abroad. Because the AK Party government did not undertake the reforms necessary to change the Supreme Military Council (YAŞ) proceedings in time, we have had a homegrown crisis two years in a row now, locking the national agenda and wasting Turkey’s time which may otherwise have been spent on much more important and pressing issues. A fix-it-as-we-go approach apparently adopted by this government is a great disservice to the citizens of this wonderful country and should be dropped at once. The governing party’s top dogs should develop their own roadmap to address structural deficiencies in Turkish democracy or, better yet, borrow one from the EU or the CoE.
Is it past-due to rein in the undue political power of the military by acting on institutional changes rather than relying on easygoing and accommodating generals at the helm of the armed forces? The government may have succeeded in appointing its own generals at the top but the current system will unfortunately continue to breed self-appointed guardians of the regime at the expense of elected governments for some time to come. Hence Turkey urgently needs to change the security culture by undertaking reforms in education curriculums and textbooks currently used in military schools. Submission to civilian democratic control must be nurtured and coined in the minds of young cadets in the early stages of their schooling.
Parliamentary oversight of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) must also be established to secure the accountability of generals. The parliamentary Defense Commission should be able to summon the chief of General Staff and flag commanders for queries on national defense policies. More importantly, the budgetary control of the armed forces by Parliament should be exercised in a real sense, not like the one we witness every year with a symbolic reading of a defense budget approved with jubilation and with no practical discussion at all. The AK Party government was guilty of dropping the ball last year when the opportunity to audit the expenditure of the military by the Court of Accounts was passed and the relevant law was being discussed on the floor. We are yet to see any transparency in the extra-budgetary expenses of the military-defense industry complex, such as the one earmarked for the Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry (SSM).
As for institutional changes, we have still not seen any action from the government to bring the status of the military bureaucracy in line with the other state bureaucracy. The armed forces enjoy a special privileged status, above and beyond those seen in modern democracies. The chief of General Staff reports directly to the prime minister and comes ahead of the defense minister in state protocol. In fact, he is number four in the protocol list, symbolizing the consolidation of immense military and political power in the hands of the armed forces. You will see no resemblance of this Turkish practice in any other NATO member state. In the US, for example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen is 49th in the state protocol order, well behind US ambassadors, congressmen, members of the cabinet, state governors and even retired secretaries of state. In France, Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin is 17th, while in Canada, Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk is positioned in 30th place.
When it comes to the promotion of generals and their retirement, the government needs to change the way YAŞ operates and relegate its authority to a mere advisory body counseling the government on the modernization of the army and military strategies. The defense minister should coordinate the promotion and retirement of generals in coordination with the chief of General Staff and submit the recommendations to the office of the prime minister for approval. All YAŞ decisions should be open to judicial review and generals accused of gross violations of the law should be suspended from their positions until the court renders a decision one way or the other.
The so-called established practices in the Turkish military for the promotion of officers must also be done away with so as to keep the armed forces as motivated as possible. The current system pre-determines who will succeed whom well in advance and has no basis in the law. It was simply instituted to keep the military autonomous from interference by civilian democratic governments, ignoring the principle of accountability. That is why we have an oversupply of officers in the Turkish military with 363 generals and admirals and 6,350 colonels. Instead, the system must provide a merit-based performance approach in promotions to secure healthy competition among officers.
Another way the military exerts undue influence in Turkish politics is through National Security Council (MGK) meetings. Not only the chief of General Staff, all force commanders attend MGK meetings held under the chairmanship of the president, who is also the commander-in-chief, joined by the prime minister and relevant members of the Cabinet as well. Though reforms have been instituted to revamp the MGK in order to reflect more civilian power, the body is still far from the one we see in comparable examples in Western democracies. It still acts as a shadow government where the military has unencumbered access to influence the decisions of the civilian government.
The government also must put an end to the business interests of the armed forces. Turkey stands out as a bad example among all 47 CoE members in having its own military submerged in lucrative business dealings up to its neck. The Turkish Armed Forces Assistance Center (OYAK) is a giant conglomerate controlling a multibillion dollar business empire in the automotive, cement, financial, service and iron and steel sectors. Many of the investments are joint ventures with well-known international names, such as Renault and AXA.
Last but not least is the urgent need to abolish the dual-headed judicial system, one which favors the military, by getting rid of the Military High Administrative Court (AYİM) and the Military Supreme Court of Appeals. This bizarre duality was created to protect the army from civilian oversight following military coups. The duties of the military judicial system must be limited to military affairs only, while civilian high judicial bodies should oversee military courts as well.