Twelve high-ranking Turkish military officers were charged Wednesday with a coup plot to topple Turkey's Islamic-rooted government, marking an escalation of the struggle between the twice-elected government of Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan and the secular establishment backed by the military.
The Istanbul court decision came after the controversial arrest of some 50 senior military officers on Monday on suspicion of discussing plans in 2003 to overthrow the government. Turkey’s military has for decades played a predominant role in politics and has carried out four coups since 1960.
Those facing trial now include five admirals (two retired), an ex-Army general, and two retired colonels. Questioning continues of other senior officers including former chiefs of the Navy, Air Force and Special Forces.
“There is no question that civilian rule is consolidating and deepening in Turkey,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London. “The current arrests would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, so the balance of civilian-military relations is now tipping towards stronger civilian oversight.”
While the US and European Union have pressed for more civilian control as Turkey bids for EU membership, the open clash between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the armed forces has taken on an increasingly political tone. The AKP leaders are devout Muslims and the party has sought to make Islam a more important part of Turkish public life, something that was anathema for most of modern Turkey's history.
Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug has recently charged that a “psychological campaign” is being aimed at the military, which has enjoyed near-sacred status since the modernTurkish state was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the remains of the defeated Ottoman empire after World War I.
Senior commanders held an emergency meeting on Tuesday to “evaluate the serious situation” in the wake of the arrests, prompting an AKP warning against any moves that might “influence” the judiciary.
The arrests on Monday marked the first time that currently serving military officers have been arrested.
Analysts say the zeal of the judiciary—and the fact that much of the evidence about the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” has been leaked to the media—have raised alarm bells. Much of the evidence against the arrested men consists of transcripts and audiotapes of a March 2003 seminar
“A very key point is that there are legitimate concerns that perhaps the government may be pushing for a confrontation with the military, to try to undermine the reputation of the military,” says Mr. Hakura.
“More critical than any convictions is the question of perceptions. And here, according to credible opinion polls, the military appears to be losing the confidence of the Turkish public,” says Hakura. “In the last opinion poll, 63 percent of Turks expressed confidence towards the military, which compared to previous levels of 80 to 90 percent is a dramatic decline.”
As lurid claims have been linked to the media in recent weeks about the considered coup, including allegations that officers considered attacking mosques, some of the accused have struck back.
“How on earth could the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK] plan to bomb mosques?” General Basbug said before his arrest. “This is unjust. The TSK has limits to its patience. I denounce these claims….We order our soldiers to attack [enemies] exclaiming, ‘Allah, Allah!’ How on earth would the TSK bomb mosques?”
A previous attempt to declare the ruling AKP in breach of Turkish law and therefore illegal, sparked by the military in 2007, failed in the courts, and the AKP handily won a subsequent general election seen as a referendum on its Islamic-leaning rule.
Turkey’s secular establishment was rocked by revelations in 2008 of a plot in which 400 people were indicted. They were accused of participating in a plan drawn up by hard-line secularists in the military, and supposedly including members of the media and academia, to spark chaos with a campaign of assassinations and bombings to create a pretext for military takeover.
The AKP was created by moderate elements of the ruling Islamic Welfare Party, whose Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was forced by the military to resign in 1997. It came to power in November 2002.
The retired general accused of leading the 2003 plot, Cetin Dogan—among those arrested Monday--has confirmed that dealing with resurgent Islamic movements was on the seminar agenda, but said that documents were fabricated that appear to prove plans to blow up mosques and bring down a jet.
Turkey’s secular opposition charges that the government is using a veneer of increasing democracy and rights in Turkey as a tool to realize broader Islamist ambitions.
“Why did you wait seven years?” Deniz Baykal, the head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), asked about the arrests that netted many retired officers. The generals were retired and “watching TV at home in pajamas and slippers.”
“Behind these incidents, there is politics,” Baykal said, as quoted in the English-language Daily News. “Political forces are exploiting the judiciary for their own purposes. As a result of this process, [serving] military commanders were detained for the first time in Turkey’s history.”
Both Washington and EU officials have issued statements about adhering to the rule of law. But the continuing revelations have hurt Turkey’s reputation.
“We think there is a problem of political discourse, but it is being perceived as a power struggle in international circles, which is creating doubts about Turkey,” the head of the Turkish Industrialists and Business Association, Umit Boyner, said after meeting with President Abdullah Gul, according to the Associated Press.
“A pattern of events seems to be emerging,” says analyst Hakura. “If we compare the early AKP, when [it] first came to power in 2002, it was a very reformist party. It pursued extensive democratic and legal reforms in Turkey. In comparison to its previous rule, one can see a change toward less reform, and perhaps greater confrontational politics.”
“Eventually, there are opportunities for a more liberal state, a more democratic politcs, and greater entrenchment of civil liberties…in the longer term,” adds Hakura. “But in the shorter term, what Turkey really needs is not to have one party replace the military [but] the entire system to be reformed.”