Francesco F. Milan

ISN Insights – Turkey’s Referendum


The original version of this analysis can be found on the ISN website

A recently approved referendum in Turkey paves the way for constitutional reform and further improvements in civil-military relations. But whether the political will exists to transform these changes into tangible democratic advancements remains to be seen.

By Francesco F Milan for ISN Insights

On 12 September a referendum promoted by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan’s party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partısı (AKP), resulted in a major constitutional reform. While several of the newly adopted constitutional amendments have been heavily criticized, perceived by their detractors as part of a political manoeuvre to centralize power in the executive, others have been hailed as an important advancement of Turkish democratic standards. In particular, amendments related to civil-military relations have been praised as legitimate and timely, although doubts remain about whether long-term priorities, rather than short-term political advantages, will inspire their application.

Significantly, the referendum came 30-years-to-the-day after a military coup, led by Chief of General Staff Kenan Evren, placed Turkey under direct military rule for the following three years: the military junta drafted and adopted a constitution on which Turkey relied until recent reforms were implemented.

The referendum’s effects

The referendum affects several main aspects of Turkish civil-military relations. One of the most important, heavily stressed by the referendum’s promoters during the last months of campaigning, is the repeal of Provisional Article 15 of the Constitution, which prohibited any legal action against military officers involved in the 1980 coup and members of the ruling junta that followed.

With the elimination of Provisional Article 15, a stream of complaints against members of General Evren’s junta have been immediately issued by both human rights associations and individuals. The feasibility of legal prosecution is now the main concern: General Evren is 93 years old, and other members of the former junta are only slightly younger; moreover, such an important trial would require significant political will and resources. Recent problematic experiences with other major Turkish investigations and trials should be kept in mind.

Indeed, the ‘Ergenekon‘ investigation is a case in point. A subversive ultranationalist network, Ergenekon is allegedly composed of top military brass members, politicians, academics and journalists. Its goal, apparently, was to lead Turkey toward nationalistic drift. Three years of investigations have led to the interrogation and detention of hundreds of suspects, and, according to media reports, the organization’s reach is growing every day. The political independence of the investigation is a matter of debate, and the alleged involvement of Ergenekon members in all of Turkey’s recent, major criminal events has raised questions about the existence of political manipulation at the trial.

The concern about political independence can also be raised in relation to the referendum’s other main reform: the regulation which allows the constitutional court to try the chief of general staff and the chiefs of all the different armed forces’ branches (land, air, naval and gendarmerie forces) in case of offenses against the security or the functioning of the state. According to the newly amended version of constitutional article number 148, former Chief of General Staff General Ilker Başbuğ, who resigned from his post in order to retire in the last days of August 2010, can be put on trial in the charge of being supposedly aware of the so-called ‘Sledgehammer’ plan. Allegedly conceived by the military in 2003 in order to discredit the AKP, undermine national security and eventually stage a coup, the ‘Sledgehammer’ investigation led to dozens of interrogations and detentions, and is allegedly linked to the Ergenekon organization. In April, however, 28 suspects were released because the judges doubted that a fully-fledged crime had been perpetrated, casting a shadow on the investigation’s credibility and transparency.

Civil-military reforms 10 years in the making

Reforms introduced by the recent referendum truly have the potential to represent a significant step forward for Turkish democracy. Moreover, they are part of a decade-long process of normalization of Turkish civil-military relations which have transformed the balance of power between the military and the executive.

One of the most important bills was passed in October 2001: A new version of article 118 of the Turkish Constitution resized the role and powers of the National Security Council (NSC), the main forum for confrontation between the government and military, transforming it into a civilian-dominated institution.

A second bill, which came into force in July 2003, opened the post of NSC secretary, traditionally held by a military officer, to civil servants. In 2004, another reform increased the transparency of military expenditures, although defense procurement and relevant expenditures are still not completely under political oversight.

In 2009, the Turkish Parliament passed a law according to which military personnel can be put on trial in civilian courts if accused of subversive activities or of taking part in illegal activities linked with organized crime. Another recent, fundamental step toward the improvement of civilian oversight of the military was the abolition of the Protocol on Cooperation for Security and Public Order in early 2010. Also known as the ‘EMASYAProtocol’, it permitted, under specific conditions, the implementation of military operations without prior authorization from civilian authorities.

A litmus test for civil-military relations

The reforms implemented in the field of civil-military relations across the past decade were significantly different from those adopted last month: the 2001 restructuring of the NSC brought a civilian majority into the most important civil-military platform; in 2004, accountability for defense expenditures was increased, and murky areas of military decision-making autonomy were cleared.

What the September 2010 referendum has brought is the right to put the military junta that seized power in 1980 on trial. However, this right comes attached with Erdoğan’sstatement that all detractors of the referendum should be considered ‘coup supporters’. It brought an enhanced role for the constitutional court, especially vis-à-vis military top brass. Nevertheless, it increased the number of court members to be nominated by the president of the republic, currently Erdoğan’s right-hand man Abdullah Gül, who now appoints 14 out of 17 judges, with the remaining three elected by the parliament.

Interestingly, no amendment has been proposed to increase military budget oversight, despite the fact that the issue has been stressed in the last report released by the European Commission, and despite the recently alleged cases of major corruption in military procurement.

The success of this referendum serves to provide a decisive opportunity for Turkish civil-military relations: should the government let the judiciary perform its duties without political interferences, the country might finally be able to shed light on the dark era that followed the 1980 military coup, as well as on the more recent Ergenekon case. However, if reforms were implemented to control and politicize the judiciary, and to eventually get AKP’s political revenge on the military, then the result would be a massive witch-hunt – something that, unfortunately, the ongoing Ergenekon case already vaguely resembles.