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Turkey’s War of Nerves

With the political standoff surrounding the selection of a new president intensifying, Turkey is entering a critical period that could have a profound effect on both the country’s internal evolution as a secular democracy and its relations with the West. The presidential candidacy of the moderate Islamist Abdullah Gul, currently the foreign minister, has been rejected by Turkey’s highest court, and the parliamentary election scheduled for November has been moved up to July in an effort to break the political impasse. But these steps are unlikely to defuse tensions between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and Turkey’s military, which sees itself as the guardian of the country’s secular state.

On the contrary, these tensions have heightened as a result of changes in the top echelons of the Turkish armed forces, particularly the replacement last August of General Hilmi Ozkok as chief of the Turkish General Staff. Ozkok was a moderate who maintained a low profile and sought to develop good working relations with Erdogan, By contrast, his successor, General Yasar Buyukanit, is a strong secularist who has been far more outspoken in asserting the military’s views.

In a speech last October to the Military Academies Command in Istanbul, Buyukanit publicly warned that Turkey faced a serious threat from “fundamentalism.” Many viewed that charge as a direct criticism of Erdogan and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Tensions reached a boiling point on April 27 when the General Staff issued a statement stressing that “the Turkish armed forces maintain their sound determination to carry out their duties stemming from laws to protect the unchangeable character of the Republic of Turkey. Their loyalty to this determination is absolute.”