In recent months the visibility of military generals in the public sphere has increased, creating the impression that Turkey has two legislative and two executive bodies, one elected civilian and one military. Former minister Hasan Celal Guzel claims that the civilian Prime Minister Erdogan is, in fact, subservient to the military Prime Minister Basbug (Today’s Zaman, October 27). Three interrelated issues have made the military visible in the public sphere. First, the way the new Chief of Turkish General Staff, General Ilker Basbug performs his job makes him and his staff more visible. Second, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has increased its terror campaign, which has brought the military into the spotlight once again. Third, since the Ergenekon trial began, alleged ties between Ergenekon and the armed forces have also affected the public visibility of the military.
When Basbug assumed the position of Chief of Staff he initiated new approaches in dealing with the media and the public that made him more visible than his predecessors. In his inaugural speech Basbug underlined how the globalization process helped Islamic organizations infiltrate society to transform it in the direction of conservative values (Hurriyet, August 29). Basbug’s bold attempt to define Islamic organizations as the enemy of the secularist lifestyle raised expectations about whether a new “February 28 period,” during which the military put pressure on the Islamist-formed government to resign, is on the horizon.
On his third day in office, Basbug gave orders to the commander of the Kocaeli Garrison to visit two jailed retired generals on behalf of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), and the visit was announced on the TSK’s website (tsk.mil.tr, September 3). It gave the impression that the TSK was trying to minimize the allegations against the Turkish military. The TSK’s visit to Ergenekon suspects in prison sparked a big controversy and the media focused in on the TSK’s activities. Two days after the Ergenekon visit, Basbug went to Diyarbakir, Van and other cities with Kurdish populations. Acting like a politician, Basbug walked the streets and talked with the people (Saba, September 5). In addition to his public appearances, Basbug has taken additional steps to reach out the media. On September 17 he held a press conference to discuss his views on various issues. He revealed that the TSK had reorganized its Public Relations Office to communicate better with the media. It was reported that the media would be able to ask questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week (Vatan, September 17).
Basbug’s last appearance in the media might have made him a YouTube phenomenon if YouTube were not banned in Turkey. On October 16, in a rare appearance with the commanders of the land and air forces, the gendarmerie, and the education and indoctrination unit, Basbug lashed out at the media for publishing classified information. An angry Basbug said the military was taking legal action over the leak of reports on the attack of October 3, which killed 17 soldiers (Today’s Zaman, October 18). During the 15-minute press conference, he said:
“Those who praise the terrorist organization are responsible for the blood that has been and will be shed. The attack in Bayraktepe was a suicide attack for the terrorist organization but epic heroism for the soldiers who fought there. The Armed Forces were stronger, more determined, and resolute than ever” (Hurriyet, October 16).
Basbug’s way of dealing with the media and public has made him the subject of news reports. Especially his angry appearance in his press conference on October 16 placed him in the center of a controversy. Thus, political observers have started thinking of him as the second prime minister.
In contrast to his predecessor General Yasar Buyukanit, who in his last period in office was harshly criticized for being docile with regard to the policies of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Basbug has established a good relationship with the AKP. Since Basbug took office, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has followed Basbug’s policies. When the TSK paid a visit to Ergenekon suspects in prison, Erdogan expressed surprising support for the TSK’s decision (Zaman, September 5). Erdogan continued to back Basbug after his angry press conference, stating, “Some people use ugly expressions such as saying that I am the prime minister of the General Staff. We are a state. I am a Turkish citizen” (Today’s Zaman, October 18). Moreover, for the first time in the history of the Turkish republic, the Chief of General Staff and other top commanders attended a cabinet meeting on October 27. Turkish Daily News (TDN) stated that “This is a very extraordinary situation, because nowhere in the Turkish Constitution or laws is there a clause defining under what conditions the top commander or commanders can participate in Cabinet meetings and what additional powers their participation provides to that Cabinet meeting”(TDN, October 27)
The military has not been this visible in public since the February 28 “soft coup.” This visibility could lead to an election setback for the AKP, at least in Turkey’s Kurdish regions. Many people who supported the AKP in the July 22, 2007, elections are dissatisfied because they feel that the AKP is becoming the party of Ankara not the party of the people (Star, October 19). It is very likely that the AKP could lose in Kurdish cities in the forthcoming election in March 2009, if voters associate Erdogan with the military. An AKP loss in the Kurdish regions would give a big boost to Kurdish nationalists, which neither Erdogan nor Basbug would like to see.