Turkey: Reforming or lagging behind?

By AlJazeera Centre for Studies

It is not an exaggeration that domestic Turkish politics has been experiencing an ongoing crisis since the 1960 military coup, which resulted in the overthrow of the long-standing Menderes government and condemned the head of state to the gallows. In the five decades since the coup d’état, Turkey has witnessed two direct military interventions and three indirect interventions; this is apart from countless covert interventions.

 There are a number of factors which led to the situation of chronic unrest and internal crisis:

    • First, after 1960, the Turkish military had became a major player in political life, not only through the National Security Council which was created by the constitution after the coup and whose membership, until a few years ago, comprised predominantly of military men, but also due to the fact that the majority of party leaders had been subject to the will of the Turkish army.

  • Second, the 1960 coup was the result of a heightened awareness of the question of identity. To date, there has been no consensus within Turkish society on how to resolve the internal debate – and divisions – around Turkey's identity, location and role.

  • Third, the difficult birth of the Republic in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in World War I had resulted in a close link developing between the internal situation and foreign policy. This link became another source of controversy and internal division after the emergence of political pluralism at the end of World War II.

  • Fourth, the birth of a pluralistic democratic system was not a conclusive defeat of the pre-existing system – founded on power – but, instead, originated from the womb of the system itself. This situation has caused Turkey continuously to walk a tight rope between the democratic forces which seek to expand freedoms and uphold the will of the people, and the ruling forces which are described by their opponents as paternalistic and believing themselves to have a right of guardianship over the people.

 Ergenekon and the Turkish chronic crisis

During the second half of February 2009, Turkey witnessed an escalation of its internal crisis. There were widespread rumours within political circles and in the media of an imminent military coup after the souring of relations between the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the army and the authority which supervises the judiciary and the prosecutors.

The issue that resulted in such heightened tensions is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to the summer of 2007 when prosecutors in Istanbul discovered, during an investigation into a mysterious politically-motivated case of assassination, an arms and ammunition store in a house belonging to a Turkish officer on the outskirts of the city.

The prosecutors’ determination to solve the assassination mystery and to uncover the arms stores led to what has become known in Turkey as “the Ergenekon file” – an undercover organisation said to act outside the law in what it deems to be Turkey’s best interests. With its origins dating back to the Cold War, it was formed by former and currently active military personnel, writers, journalists, elements of the judiciary and businesspeople.

It is believed that Ergenekon was formed as an illicit paramilitary gangster organisation during the Cold War to counter the threat of a Soviet occupation in the event of war between the Communist bloc and NATO. NATO had established many similar organisations in a number of European countries.

However, the Turkish Ergenekon was not dissolved after the Cold War. Instead, it became a criminal “political organisation”. Within its ranks are various ultra-nationalist and secularist groups which have conflicting interests but which have ensured the maintenance of the Turkish status quo since the 1960 coup, thus providing the military establishment and its allies an opportunity to play an active and latent role in state structures. According to the preliminary findings of the investigation – which is not expected to be completed soon, the members of Ergenekon have, over the past two decades, undertaken a number of extra-judicial killings and assassinations of figures which these gangs deem a threat to the unity and integrity of the state. The Ergenekon also played a criminal role in the prosecution and the killing of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Turkish Kurdish activists, especially those suspected of supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

A few months ago, through an investigation into Ergenekon’s activities, prosecutors concluded that a number of active officers, located at the very heart of the military establishment, had been involved in the case. For the investigation to continue, the Prime Minister had to intervene and request the Chief of Staff to allow the prosecutors into what is known as the Cosmic Room in army headquarters, a room where the most sensitive military secrets are kept. Prior to this, no civilian official had been allowed into the room.

The search conducted by the prosecutors in the Cosmic Room revealed that a coup d’état had been planned by a team of officers after the 2002 electoral victory of the AKP. The plan included preliminary steps which would form the prelude to a coup. These included “causing limited military clashes with the Greek forces in the Sea of Marmara”, and “blowing up mosques during Friday prayers" in one of the largest and most crowded mosques of Istanbul.

The discovery of this plan, at army headquarters, led to a new wave of arrests which targeted some of the most prominent former officers, including commanders of the Air Force, Navy and the First Turkish Army, as well as prominent serving officers such as General Saldiari Burke. That army officers could be summoned for interrogation and detention on a charge of planning a coup is something that was previously not imaginable in Turkey. Since 1960, no officers had been tried for coup attempts. This has prompted reactions from supporters of the current regime and those who sensed the determination of the AKP to reform the Turkish state once and for all.

Since the start of the Ergenekon case, a number of retired officers have been summoned for investigation and some of them have been indicted. Some of the accused officers committed suicide, possibly due to the pressure of the investigation and public opinion. The Turkish military, which has long retained the loyalty and respect of the Turkish people, has had its image tarnished by the abhorrent facts uncovered by the prosecutors.

However, secularists in the opposition Republican People’s Party, the media and the judiciary have launched a comprehensive attack on the government and the prosecutors who are investigating the case. In February 2009, the judicial supervisory body, which is dominated by a secular elite of judges, interfered by transferring a number of prosecutors from the case to other positions, in a move which was aimed at aborting the investigation.

 Race between reforms and efforts to overthrow the government

On the 25 February 2009, Turkish President Abdullah Gul called for an unprecedented meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Chief of Staff, General Mehmet Ilker Basbug. At the end of the tripartite meeting, Erdogan said that he was pleased with the result of the meeting and pointed out that the three leaders of the country agreed to address the crisis and its implications within the framework of the constitution. Despite the fact that Erdogan’s statement helped settle the air of pessimism in the country, it did not disclose the content of the tripartite meeting. Even those who were convinced that Turkey was no longer a country of military coups might have predicted that the Prime Minister would retreat amidst the anxious reactions of the military. Moreover, there was a suspicion that he might have pledged to the Chief of Staff that he would find a way of redeeming the arrested senior officers from indictment and trial.

Thus, Erdogan’s statement in the Turkish parliament the next day came as a surprise. The Prime Minister announced, in unprecedented openness and frankness, to the People’s Congress that, from that day on, Turkey would not allow “the conspirators who make their plans behind closed doors to enjoy immunity”. Moreover, he said, the law would apply to whoever jeopardised constitutional institutions and attempted to undermine the will of the people. Around the same time, judicial authorities arrested a number of additional officers who had been accused of “plotting and planning the work of the coup”, while other officers were brought to trial.

General Ilker Basbug, who had occupied the position of Commander of Ground Forces before assuming the post of Chief of Staff, has an outstanding military record and enjoys substantial popularity in military circles. He is regarded as one of the most politicised army generals, and as someone who has the ability easily to assess the situation.

Basbug faces an extremely complex and sensitive situation, the likes of which did not confront any of his predecessors since the establishment of the Republic. On the one hand, the steady expansion of investigations provided an opportunity for some liberal and Islamic circles who are opposed to the military influence to attack the military establishment and to try, decisively and permanently, to return it to its constitutional limits. On the other hand, the job of Chief of Staff requires Basbug to defend the dignity of the army and maintain its morale, especially since some of the suspects are his colleagues who are familiar with him and who served by his side for many years.

There are two assumptions that explain Basbug's cooperation with Erdogan's government in the widening investigation of members of the military who are accused of conspiracy:

  • First, the Chief of Staff has become convinced that Turkey has outgrown its penchant for military coups, and that any attempted coup d’état against an elected government which boasts a record of tremendous achievements would face widespread opposition from the spectrum of Turkish people – with possibly disastrous consequences.

  • Second, the investigation found evidence confirming that Basbug was himself involved in the coup plans (since he commanded the land forces), and Erdogan's government sought to exclude his name from the investigation in order to preserve the dignity of the army and the stability of state institutions. Thus, the general is grateful to the government for being allowed to retain his position.

Those close to the Prime Minister also point out that this issue has been of great concern to him over the past two years. Erdogan believes that the Turkish army is ultimately the people’s army, not the army of a group of “conspirator generals who are self-appointed guardians of the state and people... obsessed with illusions of control and exaggerated fears about the fate of the state”. He believes that a powerful state, with aspirations of playing a significant role in the region and on the world stage, requires a strong army. But he also believes that the army’s meddling in the political affairs of Turkey for the last half century has resulted in countless disasters for both the military and the country as a whole. Therefore, the time has come to strengthen Turkish democracy, and to put an end “the hidden control and illegal involvement of the army in the affairs of government". It is no secret that the closer the investigations get to the most sensitive and controversial circles of people, the more will be the Prime Minister’s determination to push forward his reform project to its logical conclusion.

Erdogan contested the 2007 election with a promise that his second government would prepare a new civil constitution which will replace the constitution designed by the 1980 coup officers. This is seen by many as the root cause of the current state of instability in the country. But Erdogan was unable to fulfil his promise due to a lack of cooperation from the secular opposition, since the adoption of a new constitution requires the support of at least two-thirds of parliament and a degree of national consensus. Recent developments in the Ergenekon investigations have, however, convinced Erdogan of the need for a package of constitutional amendments, even if he is compelled to resort to a referendum should Turkish opposition parties refuse to provide a sufficient majority to have it passed in parliament. There are voices in the Republican People’s Party (CHP) confirming that the holding of a referendum in the coming weeks would be unconstitutional. CHP has threatened to resort to the Constitutional Court if the government proceeds with its plans for a referendum.

On the other hand, reports leaked from the Office of the Attorney General reveal that a process of preparing a new case against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is under way. The aim of the case is to attempt to ban the party and prevent a number of its leaders from being involved in politics, including the Prime Minister himself. Such a step can only be seen as an unconstitutional political attempt, even if it is based on constitutional grounds, to overthrow the government and the ruling party.

In a speech before the Military Academy on the 13 March, General Basbug called for unity and cohesion among the Turkish people and warned of difficult days to come. This suggests that the recent crisis has once again left Turkey searching for tangible constitutional changes that would put a partial end to the dominance of the military, judiciary and secular elite whose influence supersedes the will of the people. The state institutions’ relentless efforts to halt change continues. The ultimate objective of these institutions is the overthrow of the AKP government in order to restore the former status quo.

However, such a scenario is not necessarily inevitable. Turkish public opinion opposes the military methods of conspiracy, and is currently at its strongest. Moreover, the government’s record on the economy, domestic politics and foreign policy cannot be ignored or overlooked by any force in the country. Any attempt to topple the government without the ballot box will lead to an explosion of internal violence and increased instability. It will be difficult for the secular elite, whose size is decreasing and whose influence – both military and civilian – is dwindling, to sustain the responsibility for such an overthrow.

It is clear that the recent crisis, although it did not attract much attention or receive media coverage internationally, will probably be decisive. If the governing AKP manages to pass the relevant constitutional amendments in parliament, it will completely and irrevocably change the Republic.

 * This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) and the AlJazeera Centre for Studies. The article was originally published in Arabic by the AlJazeera Centre for Studies, and has been translated into and republished in English by AMEC.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:21

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