Power Struggle in Turkey Is Erdogan Strong Enough to Take on the Generals?


Part 2: The Army Strikes Back

But if the Kemalist elite truly relented, it would the first time in the history of the republic. In fact, retaliatory measures already seem to be taking shape. For months, the Kemalists in the judiciary system are believed to have been preparing for a new trial with the intention of banning Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, 59, Turkey's chief public prosecutor, is making sure that the word gets around. "The parties can sense whether or not they will be banned," he predicted in early January.

Yalcinkaya was also the one who filed the first petition, in 2008, to deprive the AKP of its power. He described it at the time as a "center of anti-secular activities." His petition initially failed before Turkey's constitutional court, but this clearly has not deterred Yalcinkaya. The son of a Kurdish family from southeastern Turkey and the grandson of a sheikh in the devout Naqshbandi order, he is seen as Turkey's most principled lawyer. He also keeps a watchful eye on his adversary, Erdogan, at all times.

"The senior members of the judiciary are afraid that their representatives could also be taken away in handcuffs," says Mustafa Sentop, a law professor. For this reason, a new petition to ban the party would be a welcome means of reining in the AKP. It would be the latest in a long series of attempts by lawyers and military officials to force Erdogan out of office.

Since his historic victory in the 2002 parliamentary election, Erdogan, who is the son of a seaman from the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Kasimpasa and sees himself as an enlightened Islamist, has been a thorn in the side of the traditional governing elite. The more Erdogan managed to convince the West of his democratic intentions, the more the Kemalist establishment hated him.

An Assault on Modern Turkey

For the generals, much of what Erdogan has done is nothing short of an assault on the foundations of modern Turkey. He eliminated the notorious state security courts, allowed the Kurds to use their own language, pledged to resolve the dispute with Greece over Cyprus, and even had a draft constitution written up that would subject the military to civilian control.

But what could the military do to turn the tide? The generals quickly recognized that the legal and political tools for removing Erdogan were limited and that attempting to acquire power the old-fashioned way was no longer an option these days. The reputation of the Turkish army was on the line. "The days when the army would stage a coup are gone," General Ilker Basbug conceded.

Nevertheless, a small, ultra-nationalist group, which included some very high-up decision-makers, thought about ways to undermine the popular government.

In March 2007, the magazine Nokta published the conspirators' alleged plans, in the form of the so-called "coup diaries" of Navy Commander Özden Örnek.

Örnek claims that these notes are not authentic, and he was temporarily released last Thursday. According to the coup diaries, the presumed leader of the conspiracy, General Dogan, who is still in custody and was indicted Friday evening, was supposedly planning a remake of the brutal military coup of 1980. The arrest and detention of tens of thousands of "enemies of the state" in football stadiums were as much a part of the plot as the formation of a puppet government. Dogan's alleged grim scenario even had a name: "Sledgehammer."

War Games

Another plan, dubbed "Cage," included murders of non-Muslim minorities. Bombs were to be detonated in Christian and Jewish neighborhoods of Istanbul, and businesspeople were to be kidnapped. The goal was to ensure that the blame would be assigned to Islamists, and that the resulting massive pressure from abroad would force the administration to step down.

Although a spokesman for the Turkish army did not deny the existence of the "Sledgehammer" document, he described it as a "war game" typical of the military. The pro-government newspaper Zaman, calling this a weak excuse, wrote: "This plan is much too good to be just a game. Operation 'Sledgehammer' is the most detailed coup plan in the history of Turkey." The Kemalists' response seemed rather helpless by comparison. A retired officer, who chose to remain anonymous, calls it an "audacious smear campaign against secular Turkey."

Sedat Ergin, a journalist with the high-circulation daily Hürriyet, expresses himself more cautiously, noting that it is much too early to distinguish between fact and fiction. "There are too many documents at the moment, and their authenticity still has to be checked."

The fact is, however, that the Turkish military is under great pressure to investigate the accusations against the alleged conspirators within its own ranks. It needs to make its position clear. Things are getting tight for General Basbug, who insisted until recently that the coup plans were fabricated. During a meeting with Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül which was called last Thursday in a bid to reduce "tensions," Basbug promised to clear things up.

Islamized Democracy?

It is surprising, however, that the enthusiasm over the arrests voiced in the pro-government press has not caught on elsewhere, neither with the Turkish population nor with Europeans. Could this be because many Turks and Europeans don't completely trust the prime minister? Is Erdogan, who is probably the most powerful prime minister in the history of the Turkish republic, truly a flawless democrat?

Not according to some Turks. "We are being put under pressure," complains one trade union secretary. "Nowadays, people are only joining the pro-government, religiously oriented unions." An attorney says: "The Justice Ministry is doing its best to seat its own people on the appeals court." And a teacher reports: "They are in all key positions. We have city administrations loyal to the AKP, governors loyal to the AKP, district administrators, school principals and police officers." The journalist Burak Bekdil, a prominent critic of Erdogan, wonders what kind of a democracy Turkey can be if only the military is being democratized, while the AKP's people are being installed in all other sections of society. "Is that an Islamized democracy?" he asks.

Power belongs "in the hands of the people," Erdogan promised in a campaign speech a few years ago. He is of course right. But many Turks are now wondering which people he is referring to.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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