How a Turkish general’s smile is now a key election issue

Gurcan, Al Monitor, June 8, 2018

opposition parties are harshly criticizing the presence of military officers at
election campaign events in support of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 
Orsal. Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wait for his arrival at
the AKP’s Istanbul congress, Turkey May 6, 2018.

not much time left before what could become Turkey’s most consequential
elections. On June 24, about 60 million people are expected to vote in what
could lead to a regime change. All candidates, notably President Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, have stepped up their campaigns.

But the
three different “hats” Erdogan wears in his campaign have made
Turkey’s civilian-military relations — already strained by the 2016 attempted
coup — more fragile.
Erdogan campaigns across the country, he is representing the commander in chief
of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) on behalf of the Turkish parliament. He is
the president of Turkey, but also a political party leader stumping for
re-election. In cities he visits, he is accorded presidential protocol. That
being the case, generals serving in those locations are required to attend his
campaign events.
On June
2, Erdogan — as the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party
(AKP) — spoke at a dinner at Malatya and targeted Muharrem Ince, the
presidential candidate for the Republican People’s Party. Erdogan said, “You
can entrust your
shop to an apprentice
. You cannot entrust Turkey to political
apprentices. We can never entrust the country to those who have had no success,
no experience in politics. My brothers, there is nothing that those who have
lost every contest they entered can give to themselves and to this
those gleefully applauding Erdogan for his words about “apprentices” was Lt.
Gen. Ismail Metin Temel, the commander of the Second Army, in his full uniform.
Photos of the event show Temel making no effort to conceal his grin when
applauding Erdogan’s sarcasm about Ince.
labeled the “warrior general” in the TSK, is known for his stern
anti-US/anti-West views. He most recently commanded Operation Olive Branch
(January-March 2018), which the TSK carried out with the Free Syrian Army. That
explains his popularity with the conservative and nationalist segments of the
AKP voter base.
reacted sharply to the photos of Temel smiling at Erdogan’s remarks.
“For the
first time in the republic’s history, a general is applauding Erdogan [when he]
wasn’t talking about the country, our flag and our nation. Instead, he is
applauding Erdogan who was criticizing me,” Ince said at a news conference as
he campaigned in Yalova. “He will be the first general I will retire, and [I will]
remove his epaulets on Aug. 30,” which is the traditional date for TSK
promotions, retirements and assignments.
you a general of the Turkish army or a provincial leader of the AKP?” Ince
asked. “All must know their limits, comply with rules, with laws and the
constitution. A general cannot do this. I won’t let him do it; you will
In subsequent
, Ince ratcheted up his declarations of how he will retire
This is
how Temel’s smile as he applauded Erdogan became one of the most prominent
topics of the campaign. Actually, the military’s interference in politics
started long before the general’s applause. In April, when it was widely
predicted that former President Abdullah Gul might run for the presidency this
year, he was
by Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar, a childhood friend of
Gul’s, and Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, in an effort to dissuade
nighttime visit — via a military helicopter that landed in the backyard of
Gul’s Istanbul residence — shows how obscure the line demarcating politics and
military bureaucracy has become in post-putsch Turkey.
to the Internal
Service Act
— widely considered the TSK gospel — members of the
armed forces are forbidden to join political parties or associations,
participate in political demonstrations and meetings, give political speeches,
make statements or write articles. Even worse, doing any of these things while
in uniform is a serious disciplinary offense punishable by one to five years in
prison, according to the Military
Penal Code
Since the
beginning of the 1900s, Turkish political history has been full of examples of
how costly it’s been for the army and the state when the army becomes
politicized. Despite the TSK’s occasional involvement in coup attempts, it’s
still possible to assert that the TSK maintains robust principles of staying
away from daily political polemics and not becoming a subject of such drama.
Now, everybody’s arguing about whether Temel’s applause of Erdogan was a
political gesture: Should we condone Temel’s applause because Erdogan is
commander in chief and the current president, or condemn it because Erdogan was
speaking as a leader of a political party running for president?
journalists and academics emphasize that Temel, who has commanded operations
against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and most recently led Operation Olive
Branch, is a national hero, that his applause was perfectly normal and that
there are no problems in civilian-military relations. Pro-AKP media constantly
note that Temel is now commander of
military operations in Iraq.
The same
media are now on a quest to introduce Temel as the officer who will command the
pending anti-PKK operation in Iraq’s Qandil Mountains. They criticize the
opposition’s presidential candidate, Ince, for demanding Temel’s dishonorable
discharge. Columnist Taha Akyol of the daily Hurriyet (which was recently
bought by a pro-AKP media baron) wrote that Temel must show more
in the future.
opposition stresses that the military cannot work to ensure a political party’s
success and insists that Erdogan’s
was election propaganda and not about national defense or any
related military subject. Opposition leaders also ask what would have happened
if another general had attended, in uniform, a dinner honoring Ince.
obvious is that in the time left before the elections, civilian-military
relations will be a key polemical issue in the country’s increasingly heated
politics. These debates will drag soldiers into political quarrels and weaken
the relations, despite efforts to repair them since the 2016 failed military
Do these
developments indicate the TSK has become the army of Erdogan? It might be too
early to say, but the June 24 elections may well provide the answer.