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Political strife deepens in Turkey

Two cases have the nation on edge. While the government goes after an ultranationalist gang, prosecutors want to ban the ruling party on charges of Islamist subversion.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2008

AKP’s Defense: Turkish police guarded Ankara’s Constitutional Court last week as the country’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) Party defended itself against allegations of Islamist subversion.

Umit Bektas/Reuters

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ISTANBUL, Turkey

A high-stakes political drama has gripped Turkey. And now the nation anxiously awaits the next development in an unfolding story that involves coup plots, arrests of journalists and generals, and charges of Islamist subversion.

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The country's top prosecutor is on the verge of issuing a 2,500-page indictment against an ultranationalist group that promises to read like a thriller and shine a bright light on the deepening political and social divisions in Turkish society.

At issue are two cases that could redefine both politics and nationalism in ways unprecedented in modern Turkey.

In one, Turkey's top prosecutor is arguing that the AKP and its 70 top members – including the prime minister and president – should be banned for aiming to impose Islamist rule. Arguments began July 1 and are expected to wrap up within a few weeks.

Hours before the court began hearing the complaint against the AKP, the Turkish government made 23 predawn arrests in its own case against an ultranationalist gang called "Ergenekon," which it says sought to sow chaos to prompt a military coup against the elected Islamic-rooted government.

Two retired Turkish four-star generals were locked up Sunday, the latest to be imprisoned on suspicion that they were behind the shadowy organization. Opponents of the government – who often invoke the name of Turkey's stridently secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – charge that the detention of "patriots" is politically motivated.

Indictments in the Ergenekon investigation have not yet been issued, even though it has been 13 months since 27 grenades and other explosives were found in an Istanbul apartment, ushering Ergenekon into the Turkish lexicon for the first time as a hard-line group with high-level contacts that aimed to topple the AKP government.

The Turkish media have brimmed with reports of leaked details from the indictment against the alleged coup-plotters, including plans for mass protests, clashes with police, assassinations, and use of the media to provoke fear; all of it adding up to a decision by the military to seize control.

"This is all very mind-boggling," says Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Turkish Daily News and a political analyst in Istanbul. "The question is whether this is true, and whether it will be documented and proved."

But in a nation where a staunch secularism has long been a pillar of society – and the military has staged four coups in as many decades, in its self-declared role as the protector of Ataturk's legacy – acts by virulent ultranationalists have rarely been challenged.

"For the first time, patriots – quote, unquote – will be prosecuted and maybe put in jail," says Mr. Akyol. "In Turkey, the common [view] is that if you are a patriot, if you love your country, you are a good guy, and whatever you do has some justification. Now it will be proven that patriots, people who love their country, can be criminals. They can kill."

Such groups have for decades been close to elite power centers in Turkey. They are widely called the "Deep State" – sometimes described as renegade members of the security forces that act beyond the law, and believed to have secret but unproven connections with the military, police, and judiciary.

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