- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

ISTANBUL — In 2010, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat beside the armed forces chief at an annual meeting to decide on appointments in the military command.

On Monday, he sat alone at the head of the table, a symbol of civilian authority over the generals whose top commanders resigned last week in a dispute with the government.

The symbolism of the seating scheme delivered the message that Turkey’s military, which once staged coups and presided over the writing of the constitution in the early 1980s, had lost another battle in a power struggle with a government that has strong electoral support.

The body language said the same thing, too. Journalists were briefly allowed into the meeting room at military headquarters in the capital, Ankara. Mr. Erdogan sat with his fists on the table, while the generals flanking him kept their hands below and out of sight.

The emphatic imagery helped settle the public mood in Turkey, where an earlier era of instability dwells in the national psyche, despite political reforms and major economic and diplomatic advances under Mr. Erdogan since 2003.

Turks recall a 2001 meeting in which Mr. Erdogan lobbed a copy of the constitution at his predecessor during a quarrel, spooking the markets amid a financial crisis.

On Friday, the nation’s top four military commanders, including the chief of staff, resigned in protest against the arrest and prosecution in the past few years of hundreds of retired and active-duty military officers in alleged coup plots.

Some observers feared Turkey is on the brink of a new crisis; but in removing themselves from the scene, the commanders effectively yielded to the government.

It was notable that the top brass announced their exit after the markets closed on Friday, suggesting they wanted to avoid inflicting financial chaos on the country in case the currency plunged.

The Turkish lira dropped, but it was trading flat on Monday.

Mr. Erdogan’s roots in political Islam have alarmed hardline secularists in the military and other institutions. Some Turks fear he is backtracking on reform pledges, despite the electoral triumphs of his ruling party and his promises to draft a new, more democratic constitution.

The opposition Republican People’s Party, which is associated with Turkey’s secular old guard, has accused the government of seeking to “defame and discredit” the armed forces and manipulating the judiciary for political ends.

The prime minister, who has presided over an extraordinary surge in Turkey’s international profile, has handled the military upheaval with the same forceful style.

The military council meeting that he chaired on Monday will appoint new commanders. Gen. Necdet Ozel, until recently commander of the military police, was poised to fill the vacuum by becoming the new chief of staff.

Gen. Ozel, appointed as army commander on Friday, is also the acting chief of staff. The seats of chief of staff of the navy, air force and military police are also vacant.

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