The three most powerful men in Turkey met on Thursday in a bid to defuse political tensions, as the Islamic-leaning government increased to 20 the number of top-level military figures charged with plotting to topple the government.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met for three hours with Gen. Ilker Basbug—head of the once-untouchable military in Turkey—and with President Abdullah Gul, in the aftermath of the arrests of 50 senior sitting and retired military officers accused of planning in 2003 to overthrow Mr. Erdogan’s months-old government.
The arrests and accusations that elements within the Turkish military had aimed to violently provoke the government’s downfall have shaken Turkey’s political establishment and further widened the chasm between civilian and military leaders.
Gen. Basbug looked uneasy in official videotape released of the meeting.
After the session, the three men issued a joint statement: “The public must be assured that the matter will be handled in line with the law and everyone should act responsibly not to damage institutions,” the statement read.
Revered for decades by many here as the final defender of Turkey’s staunchly secular government, the military has since 1960 conducted three coups and forced one Islamist government to leave power.
But the military’s dominion over politics has been eroded by the popularity in two elections of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)—the offshoot of a now-banned Islamist party—and by legal changes made as Turkey prepares for European Union accession to ensure strict civilian control over all military forces.
Investigators into the so-called “Sledgehammer” plot continued to question the highest level military officials ever detained in Turkey, among them five admirals and three generals, and former heads of the Navy and Air Force.
But critics charge that the AKP government has gone too far in using such coup-plotting allegations in high-profile cases stretching back to 2008 to not only weaken the military, but also to undermine a host of other political opponents.
Opposition leaders of Turkey’s traditional but less powerful secular parties have called for early elections, though Erdogan dismissed them on Thursday: “Keep watching us,” the confident Prime Minister told CNN-Turk television. “Early elections are certainly not on our party’s agenda, everyone should know this.”
According to transcripts leaked in the Turkish media last month, the plot discussed at a military seminar in March 2003 called for a campaign of mosque bombings and raising tensions with Greece to a point that would trigger a Turkish jet to be shot down—all steps meant to provoke the removal of the government.
Erdogan was quoted in the Turkish media saying the Thursday meeting to restore stability was “very good.” Military chiefs had on Tuesday held an emergency meeting to discuss what it termed a “serious situation” after the Monday arrests.
Basbug in recent weeks charged that the Turkish military has been the target of “asymmetrical psychological warfare.” No information has yet emerged that the alleged 2003 plan was ever acted upon.