Turkey’s 500 000-strong army is NATO’s second largest after the United States. Military service is compulsory for all male citizens above the age of 18. Women cannot become conscripts but can choose a career in the army. In a nation where most people don’t trust politicians whom they accuse of corruption and nepotism, the military enjoys a reputation for honesty and transparency.
It is widely seen as the defender of the nation’s republican and secular values – a role it is all too happy to endorse as illustrated in the recent wrestling match between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and army chiefs over the ruling party’s choice of presidential candidate.
Since the 1960 military coup, the army has intervened four times in the country’s political affairs – most recently in 1997, when it stepped up pressure on Necmettin Erbakan’s government, the first Islamist movement to come to power.
Erbakan eventually stepped down and was banned from politics, and his Refah party was closed down by court order. In Turkey, the military is not answerable to the defence minister but to the prime minister – a fact Erdogan likes to remind the army chiefs of.
Nevertheless, the military in Turkey continues to enjoy unrivalled political powers, although Ankara did reduce the army’s influence somewhat in 2003 in order to meet demands by the European Union, which it hopes to join. But the European Commission remains uncomfortable with the close links between civil society and the military in Turkey.
Last week, enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn warned Turkey’s military to stay out of politics and show respect for democracy. This week, it was the Council of Europe – Europe’s top human rights organisation – which expressed disapproval of threats by the Turkish army to intervene in the presidential election.