Bloomberg News

Erdogan Deals Turkish Army Worst Defeat Amid Power Struggle

August 01, 2011

(Updates with meeting adjourned in second paragraph, closing share prices in eighth.)

Aug. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is poised to deal his biggest blow yet to Turkey’s secularist military as he takes on the armed forces from within their own ranks.

Erdogan began four days of meetings with army heads in Ankara to decide promotions for the highest posts. There was no announcement after the meeting adjourned today. The July 29 resignations of Turkey’s top four generals give Erdogan unprecedented freedom to steer the process as the army shows signs of buckling under government allegations of coup-plotting.

The issue of “who runs Turkey has been won, and won by the civilians,” Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations and political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said in a telephone interview. This is “about the reconstruction of the Turkish military for a new age, and a power struggle over who shapes that military.”

The prime minister was re-elected in June after pledging to replace the constitution, drawn up after a military coup in 1980. A new charter will help Turkey pursue its bid for European Union membership and boost its appeal to investors, Erdogan, 57, said April 16. The opposition has criticized the premier saying he is seeking to crush any dissent in pursuit of an Islamist agenda and argues that efforts to subdue the military represent a blow to the country’s secular traditions.

‘Legitimate Target’

“The government’s mindset makes any opposition a legitimate target,” Emine Ulker Tarhan, a deputy leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said July 30.

The latest twist in Erdogan’s contest with Turkey’s armed forces, the second-biggest in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the U.S. military, comes as he struggles to prevent the $740 billion economy from overheating.

Gross domestic product surged an annual 11 percent in the first quarter, driven by consumer demand. Foreign direct investment plunged to $8.9 billion last year from a $22 billion peak in 2007. Turkey posted its widest 12-month current-account deficit in May since records began in 1984.

The lira, which was trading near its weakest against the dollar since March 2009, pared losses that followed the July 29 resignations, rising 0.1 percent to 1.6861 per dollar at 17:30 p.m. in Istanbul. The benchmark ISE-100 index declined 0.6 percent to 61,926.61, while yields on two-year government bonds dropped 7 basis points, or 0.07 percentage point, to 8.80 percent.

‘Broader Clash’ Averted

The currency recovered as investors bet the resignations won’t lead to a “broader clash,” Tim Ash, head of emerging- market research at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London, said in e-mailed comments.

Since Erdogan took office, there has been “a high degree of concentration and monopolization of power,” Ozel said. “Part of the problem is a lack of a convincing opposition.”

According to parties outside the government, the resignation of the generals marks “a serious breakdown in relations between the organs of state,” Tarhan said. “It raises the suspicion that the government is not interested in civilian control; it’s interested in removing anyone who opposes it.”

Frontline Professionals

Erdogan has ordered the army to start hiring professional frontline troops and is examining ways to cut compulsory military service, which provides the bulk of the army’s manpower.

The military has deposed four governments since 1960 and sees itself as the guardian of the secular system established in 1923 by national founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan says his party is “conservative and democratic” and rejects an Islamist label.

“The armed forces were once the dominant political force in the country, determining the shape of the regime and wielding veto power. They’ve now lost that privilege,” said Dogu Ergil, a professor of political science at Ankara University.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, formed in 2001 after the closure of an Islamist movement he belonged to, in 2003 ended army control of the National Security Council, the body through which politicians and generals meet to discuss security threats, and defeated military attempts to block the party’s candidate for the presidency in 2007.

‘Criminal Gang’

Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner resigned last week along with three other top generals, saying trials of officers linked to alleged coup plots in 2002 have cast the army as “a criminal gang” and prevented him from doing his job. The officers reject the charges while their lawyers say some evidence against them is forged.

Erdogan’s replacement for Kosaner, Necdet Ozel, is a career soldier with no interest in politics, the Vatan newspaper reported yesterday, citing a former colleague.

The government has examined ways to cut the 15-month term of military service, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said July 29. Erdogan’s plans also include centralizing control mechanisms in the armed forces. He wants to develop a Turkish- made main battle tank and build ships that can land troops.

Delivering his victory speech in Ankara after the June elections, Erdogan said Turkey, which hasn’t taken a combat role in the NATO-led campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, should respond to popular uprisings in the Middle East by providing a role model of what a modern state in the region can achieve.

“Turkey is involved in the Arab Spring as a soft power,” said Ihsan Bal, director of the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara. “An economic power, a cultural power but not as a military power.”

--With assistance from Emre Peker in Ankara and Selcuk Gokoluk in Istanbul. Editors: Tasneem Brogger, John Fraher, Heather Langan, Ben Holland, Louis Meixler.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steve Bryant in Ankara at sbryant5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Louis Meixler at lmeixler@bloomberg.net.


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