Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved closer to controlling NATO’s second-biggest army as he replaces four top generals who quit in an unprecedented spate of resignations.
The prime minister, re-elected in June to a third term with nearly half the popular vote, late yesterday accepted the resignations of Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner and the heads of the army, navy and airforce. The lira fell on the news and Kosaner derided the government for treating the secularist military “like a criminal gang” in trials of senior officers accused of plotting a military coup, in a letter published by state news agency Anatolia.
Erdogan, 57, has reduced the armed forces’ power over Turkish politics since he first won office in 2002. His party was formed a year earlier, after the closure of an Islamist movement he belonged to. More than 40 serving generals, or about a tenth of the senior ranks of the army, are under arrest after prosecutors alleged they planned bombings to attack Erdogan’s administration.
“The armed forces are having difficulty understanding the clear message Erdogan is sending: you are answerable to civil power,” Ozer Sencar, head of Ankara-based polling company MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research, said by phone. “In a world that no longer approves of coups, there’s little they can do to resist a government that has 50 percent popular backing.”
President Abdullah Gul appointed Necdet Ozel, 61, formerly head of the military police, as chief of the army and acting chief of the general staff, according to a statement on the website of Erdogan’s office that thanked the resigning generals for their service.
The opposition, which supports the army’s secularist stance, criticized the departures of the four generals. The development marks “a serious breakdown in relations between organs of state,” Emine Ulker Tarhan, a deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said in a televised statement. “It raises the suspicion that the government is not interested in civilian control, it’s interested in removing anyone who opposes it.”
Turkey’s lira was yesterday the worst performer among 178 countries excluding Gambia falling as much as 1.3 percent. The currency closed down 0.7 percent against the dollar. Credit- default swaps rose 10 basis points to 193, data provider CMA said. Stock and bond markets were closed.
“This came at an unfortunate junction for markets,” Tunc Yildirim, director at broker Standard Unlu in Istanbul, said in an e-mailed comment. Erdogan “will try to get things under control fast this weekend and try to emphasize that the relations between a democratically elected government and the military will proceed like in western countries,” he said.
The Supreme Military Council, the half-yearly meeting of the prime minister and the armed forces to decide promotions, will go ahead as planned Aug. 1, the Prime Minister’s office said in the statement. In the last two years, Erdogan has challenged the generals’ power to determine their own careers, sometimes rejecting or modifying their proposals.
While the resignations were “extraordinary,” there’s no crisis and replacements will be appointed through existing mechanisms, President Gul said.
The departures come as Erdogan tries to keep intact an economic boom that swept him back to power, putting him on course to become the longest serving Turkish leader since national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Recent data indicate the economy is facing some imbalances. The country’s trade deficit swelled to a record $10.2 billion in June, the statistics office said yesterday, and the lira fell to the lowest in more than two years this week.
Erdogan campaigned for June 12 elections on a pledge to rewrite the constitution that was drafted under military rule after a coup in 1980. That would cement his victory over the generals, who accuse him of imposing Islamic values.
The armed forces have deposed four governments in the past four decades and see themselves as guardians of the secular state Ataturk established in 1923.
Erdogan has chipped away at the powers of the military since his Justice and Development Party was elected with a mandate to press for European Union membership. In 2003, he ended army control over the National Security Council, the body on which politicians and general meet to discuss security threats. In the same year he ignored the generals’ objections to a United Nations plan for the reunification of Cyprus. The army failed to block the appointment of Erdogan ally Gul as president in 2007 after Erdogan called elections.
Courts in Istanbul have jailed scores of former and current military officers, as well as journalists and academics, on charges that they conspired to weaken Erdogan’s government through violent attacks designed to create instability. The defendants say the cases, which focus on plans allegedly drawn up soon after Erdogan’s party was elected in 2002, are based on forged documents.
Kosaner said the trials breach international law and are being used to “provoke our great nation against their own armed forces,” according to the resignation note published by Anatolia. He said he was quitting because he was unable to protect the rights and freedoms of his personnel.
“The fact that Kosaner, who had a relatively better relationship with the Erdogan’s party than his predecessors, was the one to pull the trigger, reflects the depth of tensions,” Kaan Nazli, director of emerging markets at Medley Global Advisors in New York, said in e-mailed comments. “In recent weeks a series of new indictments were unveiled that implicated more officials, directly impacting the process of appointments at the Supreme Military Council.”