Turkish top brass beats early retreat

TURKEY awoke to a new era yesterday, one in which military generals irked by their government's behaviour don't stage a coup or throw a tantrum they seek early retirement.

TURKEY awoke to a new era yesterday, one in which military generals irked by their government's behaviour don't stage a coup or throw a tantrum they seek early retirement.

The decision by the top four figures in the military establishment to step down at the weekend stunned many in a country long accustomed to its military calling the shots. But as the dust settled, the realisation dawned that the dramatic move was just one more step in the erosion of the military's power in favour of civilian government that has taken place under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Yesterday was a new phase, a sharp curve towards pushing the military to adapt to the current changes in Turkey," said newspaper columnist Yavuz Baydar. "It shows how toothless the military has become compared to the civilian authority."

Turkish President Abdullah Gul sought to play down any sense of crisis in comments.

"Nobody should see this as a continuing crisis or problem in Turkey," he said, according to the semi-official Anatolian news agency. "Without a doubt, the events of yesterday were extraordinary in their own right, but it is all back on track. It is not right to speak of a vacuum."

Nevertheless, "it was a watershed", said Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "This was the day the military threw in the towel."

The resignations were prompted by disagreements between the military and the government over who would be eligible for promotion at Monday's annual meeting of the High Military Council, at which military officials meet government representatives to review appointments in the armed forces. Mr Erdogan had made it clear he was not prepared to consider candidates implicated in ongoing investigations in which about 250 soldiers and officers are awaiting trial for allegedly plotting coups.

Three of the men who resigned the commanders of the air force, army and navy had been due to retire in a month in any case. Mr Erdogan swiftly named General Necdet Ozel to replace the most senior of the four, General Chief of Staff Isik Kosaner, in an acting capacity and as commander of ground forces.

Professor Barkey said the fact that the generals chose to bow out rather than dig in signalled the scale of the shift away from military dominance over the past decade.

"In the old days, the military would warn and threaten and wave a big stick. They can't do it any more," he said. "In America and most European societies, the whole promotion process is supervised by civilians. Turkey is now like any other country where if you disagree with your bosses, you resign."

Mr 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 to which he belonged. More than 40 serving generals, or about 10 per cent of the army's senior ranks, are under arrest after prosecutors alleged they planned bombings to attack Erdogan's administration.

Some observers expressed concern that the military's stature was being eroded too far, too fast, by the judicial pursuit of those implicated in the coup plot. Secularists fear that Mr Erdogan's efforts to defang the military presage a creeping Islamisation of society under his moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party.

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