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Government's Pressure On Military Edges Turkey Toward Confrontation

  • Robert Tait

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (center), Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (left), and Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug met in Ankara on February 25.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul (center), Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (left), and Chief of Staff General Ilker Basbug met in Ankara on February 25.

The pressure on Turkey's beleaguered military has intensified with the formal charges against senior commanders accused of trying to topple the Islamist-rooted government in a coup.

The move further raised the stakes as the army's chief of staff, General Ilker Basbug, prepared to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for crisis talks aimed at defusing tensions provoked by the detention of 50 senior officers on February 22.

The officers are suspected of plotting to unseat the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government seven years ago.

Some 20 retired and serving officers -- including two generals and five admirals -- have now been formally charged in connection with the alleged plot. According to the Anatolia news agency, however, the former heads of Turkey's navy and air force were released by prosecutors after questioning.

The latest charges appeared to move the country one step closer to what one analyst warned would be a "major confrontation" between the government and the once-mighty armed forces, long considered the guardians of Turkey's strictly secular constitution.

It also reopened questions over the supposed political agenda behind prosecutors' relentless pursuit of the army and other pillars of the secular establishment for alleged plots to oust the AKP from power.

Alleged Plots

Investigators claim to have unearthed a series of violent coup plans aimed at overthrowing the AKP since it took office in 2002. Even before this week's developments, more than 400 people -- including retired generals, academics, journalists, writers, and lawyers -- had been arrested in a long-running probe into a shadowy group called Ergenekon, an alleged secularist cabal said to have been planning to stoke civil unrest that would provoke a coup.

The detentions on February 22 were the boldest assault yet on the armed forces' previously unchallenged power.

They were prompted by yet another alleged plot, known as Sledgehammer, said to have envisaged the bombing of mosques and shooting down of a Turkish Air Force jet as a prelude to a military takeover. The army denies that Sledgehammer was a coup plan and claims it was merely a "simulation exercise."

But the AKP and its supporters insist the investigations are uncovering a deep-rooted conspiracy aimed at overthrowing democracy and reversing a trend toward a transparent society governed by the rule of law.

At stake, they say, is whether Turkey becomes a fully modernized democracy fit to join the European Union or a hidebound authoritarian state run by a secular elite -- represented by the army and the most powerful parts of the judiciary -- determined to protect its power and privileges at any cost.

Ergenekon "is in essence a case that is trying to weed out the bad and ugly faces inside the military -- some of them now retired, some of them in custody, but basically people who were willing to create disorder and chaos that would invite a military coup in Turkey," says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of Turkey's parliament and the AKP's deputy spokesman for external affairs.

The catalog of alleged plots illustrate the need, Kiniklioglu argues, for a new Turkish Constitution to replace the existing one drawn up by a previous military government that seized power in a 1980 coup, one of four that have unseated civilian governments in the past 50 years. The aim of such a constitution would be to radically overhaul civil-military relations.

It is a contention greeted with cynicism by opponents who see the Ergenekon trial as little more than a series of trumped up charges based on dubious evidence, often gleaned from police wiretaps against pro-secularist suspects.

Power Struggles

Far from a crusade for more open government and democracy, says Gareth Jenkins, a specialist on Turkish security affairs based in Istanbul, Ergenekon is motivated by a simple desire to usurp power from the armed forces and has been pursued with a willful disregard for legal norms.

"What we've been seeing in the past two years is basically a power struggle between two authoritarian forces. It's not democrats against antidemocrats," Jenkins says. "These are two authoritarian forces. And what we are seeing with this AKP government, it's becoming more authoritarian in recent years and particularly in the last year or so."

The perception that Erdogan's government is set on an authoritarian path has been given added credence by a $2.5 billion fine imposed on the country's biggest opposition media empire, the Dogan Group, for alleged tax evasion.

The fine followed a call from the prime minister to his supporters to boycott Dogan's highly critical and pro-secularist newspapers. It has been widely condemned as an assault on press freedom and has drawn criticism from the United States and European Union, both of whom had previously hailed Erdogan as an agent for democratic change.

The government has boasted loudly of its democratic credentials, citing a domestic reform program aimed at overhauling Turkey's laws in readiness for joining the EU and a "democracy initiative" aimed at resolving a long-running conflict with the Kurds by granting long-withheld linguistic and cultural rights.

But the goal of EU membership has also been used to pursue the government's aim of reigning in the military.

Last year, the government passed a law that would have allowed serving members of the armed forces to stand trial in civilian courts, rather than in military tribunals. The constitutional court -- Turkey's highest court and another bastion of the secularist order -- overturned the law in January.

Nuray Mert, a political scientist at Istanbul University and commentator for two Dogan newspapers, "Hurriyet" and "Radikal," recently warned that the AKP was leading Turkey toward "civilian despotism."

"The rule of this government may easily turn to [a] one-party system or some sort of authoritarianism, and I think there are signs of this kind of prospect," Mert said. "Especially in its second term, the government and politicians of the governing party cannot accept any criticism.... They cannot take any kind of criticism. They take it very badly and they start to put a lot pressure on those who are being critical in various ways."

Mert's comments carried weight because of her past criticism of Turkey's secular laws, including the ban on female university students wearing the Islamic headscarf. But they infuriated the AKP's backers in the media who subjected her to what Mert describes as "amazing, insulting, and unacceptable" criticism.

The specter of a one-party state also haunts Bedri Baykam, a prominent Turkish artist and leading member of the opposition Republican People's Party, the party established by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

"Unfortunately Mr. Erdogan is using all the weaknesses of democracy to try to get rid of democracy, where he is going to rule not just be a single-party regime but also controlling all the judiciary system and having all the opposition press kept silent," Baykam says. "And it's really a very sad situation."

The Question Of Secularism

The AKP's growing assertiveness is all the more galling to its political opponents given that it only narrowly avoided being wound up by the Constitutional Court for alleged antisecularism in 2008.

Under a case brought by the country's chief prosecutor, the party was accused of trying to transform Turkey from a secular state to an Islamic republic. The court found the AKP guilty as charged, but ruled, in a 6-5 verdict, against shutting it and banning its leading members -- including Erdogan and the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul -- from politics.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
It is a decision some members of the judiciary may now regret.

Last week, the chief prosecutor of the northeastern province of Erzincan, Ilhan Cihaner, was arrested on the orders of a government-appointed special prosecutor and accused of belonging to Ergenekon.

Cihaner had earlier ordered an investigation into an Islamic group. His arrest provoked a stern retaliation from the judicial establishment, with the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors voting to strip the special prosecutors and three colleagues of their powers.

Some believe the pursuit of the judiciary points to another motivation behind Ergenekon -- as payback for the closure case.

"[The AKP through] the Ergenekon case is trying to make people forget that the country is being run by a party that has been condemned as the center of antisecular activities by the Constitutional Court," says Bedri Baykam. "This is their counterattack."

Yet some neutral observers believe rumors of the AKP's growing despotic tendencies are greatly exaggerated.

Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, says Erdogan's government deserves praise for democratizing Turkey, despite the prime minister's personal authoritarian characteristics. "Of course the AK government is tempted sometimes with some sort of authoritarianism, but structurally the path of the country is definitely towards more democracy," he says.

Aktar maintains that the previous AKP coalition government "opened the path" in 2002 by introducing a number of democratic reforms, and the party has continued in that direction. And while he says the AKP effort slowed down a bit, "they have kick-started again" with its democratization initiative aimed at Kurds and other groups.

"It's a bit clumsy. It's not perfect. But this country has never seen such initiatives in the last 100 hundred years. So I think one should give credit to this so-called Islamic party," Aktar says. "Actually, they are Muslim democrats, exactly like Christian democrats in Europe, and they are reformists."

In an increasingly tense and confrontational atmosphere, it seems a generous assessment.

And with their positions under such sustained assault, the military and judiciary -- the twin bastions of Turkey's secular system -- will surely be unwilling to give the AKP the benefit of the doubt for much longer. The failed 2008 attempt to close the party down may not be the last.