BOMBS target the faithful in Istanbul’s busiest mosques; a Turkish air force jet is shot down over the Aegean, provoking a war with Greece. Chaos descends over Turkey. The army steps in, overthrows the mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) Party that has governed Turkey since 2002, and takes control.
This plan, codenamed “Sledgehammer” and hidden among 5,000 pages of army documents, was exposed in January by a small independent newspaper, Taraf. It caused a storm. The army said it was just a “simulation exercise”. How, thundered General Ilker Basbug, the chief of the general staff, could Turkish soldiers, who charge into battle crying “Allah, Allah”, bomb a mosque? It is a question which civilian and military prosecutors are now attempting to answer.
“Sledgehammer” is only the latest in a string of alleged coup plots to have been exposed in recent years. That helps explain why, on February 4th, Turkey’s government scrapped the controversial security and public order (“Emasya”) protocol, which lets the army choose to take charge in the provinces when law and order breaks down. Critics argued that Emasya’s real purpose was to provide the legal framework for a future coup.
The army’s image has been badly tarnished and its role is now being questioned. Is its influence fading irreversibly as Turkey becomes a fully fledged Western democracy? Or is this just the latest twist in the long battle between the elite, made up of generals and an old guard used to monopolising wealth and power, against a rising class of overtly pious Anatolians, symbolised by the AK government?
The answers matter, and not just to the Turks. Turkey is a strategic pivot between Europe and the Middle East. It has a large and growing population of 72m people. It is poised to become a main transit route for oil and gas from the east. It has NATO’s second-largest army, after America’s. And it is a rare example of a secular democracy in a mainly Muslim country, closely watched by other democracies, such as Pakistan and Indonesia, where the army is strong.
Herein lies the conundrum. The Turkish army has long been seen as the guarantor of the secular republic founded 86 years ago by Kemal Ataturk. For all its recent troubles, it remains the country’s most trusted and popular institution (although its ratings are slipping to unprecedented lows). Yet the generals’ persistent meddling in politics and the red lines they seem to draw around some of the thorniest subjects—such as Cyprus or the Kurds—are among the biggest obstacles to Turkey becoming a full democracy. Turkey’s constitution was drafted by the army 30 years ago; it urgently needs a rewrite. And the issues on which the army is most recalcitrant are precisely those that most bedevil Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union.
A parallel state
The army has staged three coups since 1960, when it hanged the country’s first freely elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes, established the National Security Council and set up its own courts. “They created a parallel state,” explains Umit Kardas, a former military prosecutor. The generals cemented their power after the 1980 coup by pushing through an authoritarian constitution that remains in force.
In 1997 the generals toppled the country’s first Islamist-led government, on the dubious ground that it was seeking to introduce sharia law. This “post-modern coup” came after a sustained campaign orchestrated by the generals and their friends in the media and business. In 2007 they threatened to intervene again, this time through a web posting on the defence staff’s website objecting to Abdullah Gul, then Turkey’s foreign minister, becoming the country’s president. They were unhappy that Mr Gul’s wife chose to wear a headscarf, which is banned in state institutions as a symbol of Islamic fundamentalism.
This “e-coup” proved a huge miscalculation. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, called a snap election, AK won a second term with a greater share of the vote (47%), and Mr Gul duly became president. “The army tried to dictate its will and the people said no—and what’s happened since shows that the army is losing its power,” notes an EU diplomat in Ankara.
Undeterred, in 2008 the generals tacitly backed the country’s chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, when he tried to persuade the constitutional court to ban the AK party on the flimsy charge that it was seeking to reverse secular rule. The constitutional court ruled against the ban, though by a whisker.
Since then, the government has been fighting back. Over the past two years the public has been bombarded with revelations of the army’s alleged skulduggery. Scores of officers, including retired generals, have been interrogated or arrested in connection with the so-called Ergenekon case, named after an alleged shadowy network of rogue security officers, academics, journalists and businessmen. Prosecutors accuse the network of planning to foment chaos through a series of bloody provocations, thus justifying a coup against AK. But the evidence has not always been convincing, and some innocent people have been caught up; many have been detained for months without charge.
The generals insist that Ergenekon is part of a smear campaign led by Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic cleric who heads Turkey’s richest and most influential Islamic brotherhood. This movement, which abhors violence and embraces capitalism, is acknowledged to have kept Turkish Islam tame. But the generals believe Mr Gulen and his followers are steering Turkey towards Islamic rule. One of the army’s alleged coup plots involved the planting of weapons in the homes of Gulenists in an attempt to discredit them.
It is not just coup-mongering that is blighting the army’s image. A recent string of bloody attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has raised questions about the army’s prowess in the field. These grew louder when Taraf published documents purporting to show that the army had advance warning of a PKK attack carried out in 2007 on Daglica, a remote outpost on Turkey’s border with Iraq. The revelations provoked an outcry, and previously taboo questions about Turkey’s military activities are now being asked. Ali Bayramoglu, a liberal academic, notes: “Until recently, losing a son in service of the country was a badge of honour. But for the first time the Turkish people are openly questioning the merits of the war.”
Ergenekon and Daglica have sapped the army’s prestige. But it is EU-oriented reforms that are nibbling at its power. This may explain why the generals, although paying lip service to the goal of joining the EU, are in fact rather ambivalent about it.
Suits v uniforms
The reforms began in earnest in 2002, when AK formed Turkey’s first single-party government in 17 years. In January 2004 the National Security Council, through which the generals used to impose their views, was shrunk to an advisory body. In one of its boldest moves, the AK government passed a constitutional amendment last year paving the way for officers to be tried in civilian courts.
The generals may be down, but they are by no means out. The civilian-trials amendment was struck down by the constitutional court in January. To say that the army’s power is declining indicates “a comfortable assumption of linear progress, where democracy and the politicians are gaining ground,” comments William Hale, a British analyst; that is not entirely accurate, he says.
In truth the army is strong whenever the civilian government is weak, or when danger threatens. Many people worry that tensions between Turks and Kurds could escalate into the kind of unrest that might justify a fresh army intervention. And there is another catch. The army’s own internal-service law allows it to intervene in defence of secularism and “the indivisible unity of the state” when these are perceived to be at risk—from Kurdish separatists, for example. Although General Basbug endorsed the scrapping of Emasya, he has made it clear that this last safeguard must remain untouched. EU demands that the generals should be answerable to the defence ministry, rather than the other way round, have yet to be met. “Let them subordinate the army to the ministry of sports if they want,” scoffs Armagan Kuloglu, a retired general. “The army will still do what it needs to do.” Lale Kemal, a military analyst, says that “until the constitution is replaced, civilian control over the army is a pipe-dream.” Mr Erdogan has vowed to replace the constitution, but he is widely suspected of cutting deals with the generals behind the scenes.
Quarrels between Turkey’s soldiers and its civilian rulers are nothing new. In 1908 the “Young Turks” mounted the first successful modern coup when they overthrew the tyrannical Sultan Abdulhamid II. The army was hailed then as a force for modernisation. It also offered a leg-up for the rural masses to climb the social ladder.
But it was not until Ataturk rescued Turkey from dismemberment at the hands of the western Allies after the first world war that the army was put on a pedestal. Millions of Turks believe that, had it not been for Ataturk and the army, there would be no Turkey today. Such feelings are cemented during the 15 months of military service that are mandatory for all Turkish men. The army also owes its popularity to an education system which decrees that “Every Turk is born a soldier”.
For millions of secular Turks the army remains the sole guarantor of their freewheeling lifestyle. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), founded by Ataturk, should be in the vanguard of pro-EU changes. Yet it has opposed many of them, even though it is EU membership, not the army, that offers the best shield against radical Islam.
With no credible rivals in sight, the AK party may well win a third term in 2012. This could give freer rein to what critics call Mr Erdogan’s tilt towards authoritarianism. His attacks against opposition newspapers and his reluctance to change laws that keep smaller (ie, Kurdish) parties out of parliament have reinforced this image. “One might feel better about the military’s loss of power if Turkey had a balanced political system with the possibility of alternance of government,” says Eric Edelman, a former American ambassador to Turkey.
Unlike the crooked politicians who have long mismanaged the country, “the Turkish army doesn’t represent narrow interests,” argues Mesut Yegen, a sociologist at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. “It draws its legitimacy from the people. It is truly a national force.” This may explain why Turkey’s generals have always handed power back to civilians after their coups. Yet for all its talk of being of the people, “the army believes that it knows what is best for them,” says Mr Kardas. Cloistered in their barracks, clubs and holiday camps, soldiers are often out of touch. “We lived in a surreal world where officers who wanted to get promoted had to drink wine and dance the waltz,” says Senol Ozbek, a retired lieutenant-colonel.
A very modern general
If Turkey’s army is beginning to lose its addiction to political meddling, it is in part thanks to the efforts of the man at the top. General Basbug, who won a reputation for toughness in the early 1990s during the height of the Kurdish insurgency in south-east Turkey, is as strict a secularist as any. But he is well aware that the army’s perceived aversion to Islam has contributed to its sagging popularity.
The general has a more enlightened understanding of the army’s role than did some of his predecessors. According to Mr Edelman, General Basbug’s experiences as a cadet during the 1960 coup convinced him that there was no place for the army in Turkish politics. His name has never been linked to any alleged coup-plotters. He says he is determined to weed them out. Now some of his soldiers seem to be catching the bug; they are said to be behind many of the alleged coup plots that have been leaked. “Some are out to get their peers, some are Gulenists, but many are idealists who believe the army should keep out of politics,” says Mehmet Baransu, the Taraf journalist who broke the Sledgehammer story.
Such attitudes are spreading throughout Turkey, helped by the forces of globalisation and the internet in a country where half the population is below the age of 29. Every Tuesday night millions of Turks tune in to watch a new mini-series called “Would This Heart Forget You”. Were it not for the romantic plots, the programme might be mistaken for a documentary on the army’s abuses during the 1980 coup. Recent episodes showed torture scenes in the notorious prison at Diyarbakir. “The soldiers would stick truncheons up our anuses, urinate on us and force us to eat dead rats,” says Salih Sezgin, a former inmate. Until recently such a series could not have been aired.
Back in 1909, Ataturk delivered a speech to his fellow Young Turks. “Our colleagues in the army should no longer dabble in politics,” he said. “They should direct all their efforts to strengthening the army instead.” Over 100 years later, the message may at last be getting through.
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