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.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

The arrests have "changed the political landscape in the country for good in favor of civilian supremacy in the balance of power," says Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University, noting that it may be part of "a big cleaning up process, cleaning up the military from interventionists, from those who [want] to take Turkey away from its Western security orientation."

Among those arrested last week was a high-ranking editor of a nationalist newspaper, and Sinan Aygun, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Ankara who reportedly told police: "I am being taken away because I love Ataturk!"

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been quoted in the Turkish newspaper Sabah saying, "These gangs are not new in our country. Our aim is to get rid of them." Noting the initial police raids, Mr. Erdogan said: "There is a deep Turkey working against the Deep State. This prevents [the gangs] being as active as they once were."

"The tentacles of the Deep State are obviously pretty deep, but … there is no longer a life-support system for them, partially because Turkey, to progress politically from now on, has to cleanse itself from that element," says Mr. Ozel.

He adds that legally the case against Ergenekon and the prosecutor's charges against AKP may not be related, but politically are interconnected.

"If half the things that are being said about [Ergenekon] are correct, can they really have even contemplated this without support from serving military personnel? Obviously you can get to those connections, and [so] whoever is behind the [AKP] closure case may have to think twice," says Ozel.

Despite the political uncertainty, business continues in Turkey – a novel state of affairs considering how past standoffs have crippled the economy, sometimes for even years on end.

It's a fierce power struggle that will be seen as reigniting the battle between Republican secularists and Muslim conservatives, says Hugh Pope, the Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group. "But it's not a problem that is taking Turkey to its knees."

"The whole question is what is the rule of law, and how should Turkey be run?" says Mr. Pope. "The scene in Ankara is two points of view that can't see a way forward."

And that bolsters suspicions about the handling of both inquires. AKP backers say the case against it is a "farce," while the Ergenekon case, too, has political overtones.

Lack of public evidence means the charges "may have been exaggerated," says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at Chatham House, a London think tank. He says Ergenekon's effort appeared "a bit shambolic and ill-organized."

"It could be true," says Mr. Hakura. "But given the politically charged atmosphere, the timing of the arrests, the way they were done and the critical lack of an indictment does raise a lot of questions."

[Editor's note: The original version misidentified the subject of a forthcoming 2,500-page indictment from Turkey’s top prosecutor. It is the ultranationalist group known as "Ergenekon," not Turkey's ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP).]

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