WHEN PROMOTERS of democracy depend on the steady hand of the military, the balance is always uneasy. This approach may have reached its limits in Turkey, where the military’s longstanding role as the guardian of secular democracy has now been decisively rejected.
After decades in which the armed forces were the ultimate arbiter of politics, Turkey’s popularly elected civilian leadership has now taken control. The military has, so far, accepted its demotion. Though the Islamic flavor of Turkey’s government makes some Westerners nervous, the extension of civilian control should be seen as a healthy sign.
For the last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has steadily been arresting or dismissing military officials on charges they were seeking to topple his elected government as early as 2003. Some level of suspicion by the civilian government may be justified, in light of the four coups military leaders staged since the 1960s to uphold their vision of secular democracy. Erdogan’s actions led to numerous resignations last week - the equivalent of the entire US Joint Chiefs of Staff leaving en masse.
For many, Erdogan and his Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party threaten the notion of a modern, secular Turkey that the military long championed. But there is little evidence Erdogan will turn away from the openness and accessibility that have made Turkey the success it is today. The country has evolved into an economic powerhouse. While still deprived access to the European Union, Turkey has formed strong ties with its Asian and Arab neighbors, often to promote US policies or act as an intermediary. Despite some inflammatory remarks, Erdogan has been a steady ally for the United States.
Elsewhere in the region, there are reminders of what happens when democratic aspirations rely too heavily on military power. Though the Egyptian military’s refusal to fire on protesters forced out President Hosni Mubarak, there is growing evidence that military leaders - nameless and unelected - will not cede to democratic demands.
In a mature democracy, civilian control must be paramount. The historical track record suggests that, more often than not, a military without civilian oversight will abuse its power. Just ask the Egyptians today.