ISTANBUL (Reuters) - For Turkey’s political leaders it was business as usual on Saturday, denying any crisis, or simply not mentioning the resignation of the country’s four top military commanders.
Chief of General Staff General Isik Kosaner stepped down on Friday along with the commanders of the army, navy and air force in protest at the detention of 250 officers on charges of conspiring against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
More than 40 serving generals, almost a tenth of Turkey’s senior commanders, are now under arrest, accused of various plots to bring down Erdogan’s AK Party government.
Relations between the staunchly secularist military and Erdogan’s socially conservative Justice and Development Party (AK) have been fraught since it first won power in 2002, due to mistrust of the AK’s Islamist roots.
The departure of the generals has caused turmoil in the military and dampened sentiment on financial markets, but could prove an opportunity for Erdogan to extend his authority over the once-dominant armed forces, the second biggest in NATO.
President Abdullah Gul, himself a former senior AK Party member, played down the significance of the resignations.
“Nobody should view this as any sort of crisis or continuing problem in Turkey,” Gul told reporters on Saturday.
“Undoubtedly events yesterday were an extraordinary situation in themselves, but everything is on course.”
Erdogan said in a pre-recorded speech broadcast on Saturday his priority was to press ahead with plans for a new constitution which he said would boost democracy and made no mention of the top brass quitting.
“I believe our biggest duty is to prepare a new constitution, democratic and liberal, without shortcomings and meeting the needs of today,” Erdogan said in the ‘address to the nation’. It was not clear when the recording was made.
In a farewell message to “brothers in arms”, Kosaner said it was impossible to continue in his job as he could not protect the rights of his men who had been detained as a consequence of what he called a flawed judicial process.
“It is impossible to accept their detention as being in line with principles of universal law, justice and moral values,” Kosaner said.
While the resignations are embarrassing, they could give Erdogan a decisive victory over a military that sees itself as guardian of the secularist state envisioned by the soldier statesman and founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Analysts perceive little political threat to Erdogan’s supremacy. AK won a third consecutive term, taking 50 percent of the vote, in a parliamentary election in June.
In years gone by, Turkey’s generals were more likely to seize power than quit. They have staged three coups since 1960 and pushed an Islamist-led government from power in 1997.
Erdogan, Gul and other founders of the AK Party, were members of an Islamist party whose coalition the military forced from power 14 years ago. Erdogan himself was jailed for four months in 1999 for inciting “religious and racial hatred”.
But as prime minister, Erdogan has ended the military’s dominance through a series of reforms aimed at advancing Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.
But the Turkish bid to join the EU is now floundering with Ankara only having completed one of the 35 so-called chapters it needs to finish in order to join the bloc — 12 are under discussion and 18 have been blocked by Cyprus and France.
“Four-star earthquake,” the Sabah newspaper called the generals’ resignations, while papers also highlighted Kosaner’s criticism of media reporting on the military.
“They tried to create the impression that the Turkish Armed Forces were a criminal organisation and ... the biased media encouraged this with all kinds of false stories, smears and allegations,” Kosaner’s statement said.
“We’ve got a situation in Turkey where we’ve had over the last few years almost a de-institutionalisation of the Turkish state, where everything has become more politicised and it is a danger for any state,” said security analyst Gareth Jenkins.
On Istanbul’s streets, opinions were polarised between government supporters and opponents.
“This is a move to place AK Party supporters in the army. There was only the army to protect secularism but they took that as well,” said retired 54-year-old Perihan Guclu.
“This has been a good development. We have got one of the biggest numbers of generals in the world but we are becoming a democracy slowly,” said a 52-year-old who gave his name only as Dursun.
The subordination of the generals was starkly demonstrated last year when police began detaining scores of officers over “Operation Sledgehammer”, an alleged plot against Erdogan’s government discussed at a military seminar in 2003.
The officers say Sledgehammer was just a war games exercise and the evidence against them has been fabricated. About 250 military personnel are in jail, including 173 serving and 77 retired staff. Most are charged in relation to Sledgehammer.
A court on Friday accepted an indictment in another alleged military plot, known as the “Internet Memorandum” case, and prosecutors demanded the arrest of 22 people including the Aegean army commander and six other serving generals and admirals.
Aksam newspaper described this as “the indictment which triggered a crisis” in a case where the military is accused of setting up anti-government websites. Papers said disagreements over senior appointments also prompted the generals to quit.
The detentions have sapped morale and spread mistrust and suspicion among the officer corps, and many had been looking for Kosaner to take a stand since his appointment last August.
The main opposition CHP said the army should stay out of politics, but warned against the AK Party exploiting its power.
“It is not right to draw soldiers into politics but there is no benefit in vilifying, smearing or undermining their dignity day and night,” senior CHP deputy Emine Tarhan told a news conference.
A government statement said the four commanders had retired and made no mention of the reasons why. It said a meeting of the Supreme Military Council, which meets twice-yearly to make top appointments, would go ahead as planned on Monday, showing Erdogan is in a hurry to restore the chain of command and present an image of business as usual.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Seda Sezer; Editing by Jon Hemming