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Ergenekon, AK, And Turkey's Municipal Elections

  • Abbas Djavadi

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in Istanbul. The AK leader said his party had "learned [its] lesson."

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his vote in Istanbul. The AK leader said his party had "learned [its] lesson."

On August 13, 1994, a helicopter landed in the Kurdish village of Kirkagac, near the town of Cizre in southeastern Turkey. Men in camouflage fatigues stormed houses and took away six men, leaving behind their wives, children, and parents.

The abducted men were not, however, militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Some of them had refused to become "korucu," or "village protectors," the euphemism designating collaborators with the Turkish government in the fight against the PKK. Others had incurred the enmity of the "korucu" in neighboring villages as a result of either personal or interclan disputes.

The six men disappeared without a trace and their families were unable to find out what had happened to them. There was no trial or prison sentence, nor was any information released concerning their whereabouts. Soon everyone concluded that they had been summarily killed.

Nobody knows the exact number of unsolved killings and disappearances in the Kurdish-populated regions of Turkey since the PKK launched its armed campaign in the 1980s. A Turkish parliamentary commission has put the figure at 17,500.

Turkey's mainstream media have documented cases of alleged PKK involvement in some killings on the grounds of "treason" and collaboration with Ankara. But it took 13 years to break the veil of silence surrounding an illegally formed group called Ergenekon, consisting of ultranationalist -- both rightist and leftist -- army and police officers, politicians, and other public figures such as journalists, who engaged in things the state was unable to do publicly: kidnapping suspects without arrest warrants, and then torturing and even killing them.

The 'Deep State' Emerges

Two years ago, a sensational trial started in Istanbul that is still continuing. The indictment against Ergenekon encompasses thousands of pages and hundreds of suspects, victims, and witnesses. And it's not only about the extrajudicial killings of Kurdish civilians in the name of the fight against PKK terrorists.

After Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development (AK) party won the parliamentary elections in 2002, Ergenekon is alleged to have switched its priority to ousting the AK government. The social-democratic but nonetheless nationalist Republican People's Party (CHP) became a minority in the parliament, along with the smaller ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP), while the conservative right was marginalized.

The AK party's Islamic background and some of its policies, such as an attempt to permit female students to wear the hijab head covering on college campuses, impelled the opposition, both inside and outside parliament, to take action. But in the wake of their election defeat, the opposition's "actions" took on an increasingly suspicious and illegal form.

Fearing that theocratic rule was part of AK's hidden agenda, hundreds of thousands of "secularists" staged demonstrations in big cities, calling on the army to intervene. The most recent Ergenekon-related documents to be made public, reconstituted from the hard disc of a leftist journalist's computer, reportedly indicate that high-ranking military commanders were making meticulous plans in 2006 to mount a coup. That plot was allegedly thwarted by the then-armed forces chief of staff, General Hilmi Ozkok.

The 2007 parliamentary elections brought AK significantly more votes than five years previously, reinforcing its absolute majority in parliament. Less than six months later, the prosecutor-general asked the Constitutional Court to ban the AK party, but the court narrowly rejected that plea.

But the tactics employed with the aim of overthrowing the AK government have not always been confined to peaceful demonstrations, court trials, or even the army's coup attempt.

Between AK's first election victory in 2002 and 2007, a dozen sensational bombings, terrorist attacks, and killings gave rise to public panic and protests. The headquarters of the leftist newspaper "Cumhuriyet," which has relentlessly criticized the AK government, was bombed. An armed man shouting "Allah is great!" stormed the Supreme Administration Court, a "beacon of secularism," and killed a judge. And Hrant Dink, a popular Turkish-Armenian journalist, was shot dead in Istanbul by a man who after his arrest shouted religious and nationalist slogans.

All these and many other terrorist attacks were intended to create the impression and fear that Turkey is falling into the hands of Islamist extremists, and that AK is openly or covertly behind this trend. But the ongoing proceedings in Istanbul's 13th Criminal Court point in a different direction: at Ergenekon, an illegal and terrorist group, a "deep state" as they call it in Turkey, that undertook criminal acts for "patriotic goals," terrorizing Kurdish civilians in the 1990s to "protect" Turkey from "disintegration" and seeking to overthrow the AK government in the 2000s to save the country from Islamization.

It will take time and patience to determine whether or not all those generals, politicians, drugs and arms traffickers, journalists, and businessmen named in the Ergenekon indictment were indeed involved in the coup attempt, killings, and bombings, and, if so, to what extent.

Has AK Learned Its Lesson?

But two things are clear. The first is that the genie is out of the bottle and the taboo is broken. The Turks have finally started to challenge their "most popular institution," the "pillar of the republic" -- the army. The second is that neither the Ergenekon trial nor many other attempts to end lawlessness would have been possible without the political environment the AK party created and nurtured in order to ensure its own survival.

Over the past few years, AK has implemented more reforms than were undertaken in the preceding several decades. The economy has flourished, although there has been a downturn in the last 12 months, primarily due to the global economic crisis.

As part of its bid for European Union membership, Turkey has gone a long way toward bringing its legislation into line with European standards, as well as enacting some social and economic reforms. In the last two years, however, enthusiasm in European capitals to embrace Turkey has waned as the Turkish commitment to continue reforms has slowed down. One of the EU's main demands has been a guarantee that the Turkish Army will not in future become involved in domestic politics.

In the March 29 local elections, in which some 48 million people were called upon to elect more than 92,000 local representatives such as mayors and village heads, according to the preliminary results the AK party maintained its solid majority of local representatives, although the percentage of votes it received was lower than in the 2007 parliamentary election. This was interpreted by some Turkish analysts as a "soft yellow card," or warning, shown by the electorate to AK.

Encouraged by both the election outcome and the political capital resulting from the Ergenekon trial, AK is expected to continue the reforms. Liberal Turkish commentators warn, however, that changes, especially with regard to the army's role, may come slower than expected. The AK party will have to tread a fine line, the "edge of a sword," between downfall on the one side and survival with cautious progress, on the other.

The government seems to be aware of the threats to its survival, primarily from the army. But more than six years of absolute majority and general success have also made AK too self-confident, and even arrogant. Its leaders use all their powers to silence critics and to appoint their sympathizers to government agencies, courts, security forces, media, schools, and hospitals. Lucrative business opportunities are primarily reserved for party members and their friends. And the party seems to be indifferent to the concerns of those millions of voters who have no clear political affiliation.

Ayla Barlas, a 26-year-old primary school teacher from Ankara, said: "I certainly did vote. But, in fact, I don't trust any of these politicians." And she is not the only one: according to the Istanbul-based public-opinion-research center KONDA, 49 percent of Turkey's electorate does not trust any political party.

After the elections, Prime Minister Erdogan said the AK party has "learned [its] lessons" from the results. Perhaps the "soft yellow card" will help.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of programming with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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