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Thursday, August 03, 2006

New Turkish army chief a controversial choice

Perro de Jong*, Radio Netherlands
Thu, 3 Aug 2006, 01:17

There has been a surprising development in Turkey, where General Yasar Buyukanit has been appointed chief of the general staff of the armed forces. His candidacy was no secret but the appointment was not expected this soon. The unusual haste in this case seems designed to wrong-foot objectors. And there will be objectors, since General Buyukanit is known as an outspoken, old-fashioned, anti-Islamic hawk.

The Turkish military still occupy their powerful position as guardian of the ideology of Kemal Atatürk, the "father of the Turks". He laid the basis in the 1920s for the modern Turkish state and one of his major tenets was a strict division between mosque and state.

The army has seized power, temporarily, on three occasions when it believed Atatürk's legacy was in danger. The last full-blown coup d'état was in 1980. But the army also intervened in 1996 when Turkey got its first Islamist prime minister in the shape of Necmettin Erbakan. Within a year he was forced to resign and his Welfare Party was taken to court and disbanded.

Current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also felt the power of the military at first hand. In 1998 he was sentenced to ten months imprisonment for quoting a poem in which mosques are compared with army barracks. When his Islamic-oriented AK Party won the 2002 elections, Mr Erdogan was initially unable to become prime minister because of this conviction.

However, a major change seemed to take place in 2003. The army allowed Erdogan to take power and, in turn, he carefully avoided potentially explosive topics such as tampering with the constitutional ban on headscarves and the financing of the military.

That development was partly the work of General Hilmi Özkök, the chief of the general staff who has now been succeeded by General Buyukanit. General Özkök deliberately kept the military in the background while Prime Minister Erdogan carried out necessary political reforms and steered a decidedly pro-European course. Membership of the European Union seemed to be a goal the government, the military and broad sections of the public could all agree upon.

But that was three years ago and, in the view of many Turks, Brussels has muddied the waters by failing to cooperate anything like enthusiastically enough. Recent polls carried out by two Turkish universities show that popular support for EU membership has decreased from 74 to 54 percent, while religious conservatism is increasing by leaps and bounds and the Islamic voters are losing patience with Prime Minister Erdogan's deferential approach.

The military have also become more polarised. The generals no longer believe in the EU as the answer to Turkey's problems; they are more interested in the country's role as a NATO ally of the United States. General Buyukanit is a controversial figure with a reputation for being pro-American and a similar hardline attitude towards terrorism as the Bush administration.

Prime Minister Erdogan must be in a sombre mood following the appointment. He did make an attempt to forestall this by accusing General Buyukanit, behind the scenes, of forming a clandestine anti-Kurdish hit squad. However, this did not produce the judicial investigation he was hoping for and Erdogan knew better than to come out publicly against the choice of the Supreme Military Council. The calls from within the ranks of his own party for him to follow a more pronounced Islamic line already pose a great enough threat to his position.
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