Turkey and its army
Restive colonels and generals
From The Economist print edition
New evidence of old anti-government conspiracies within the army
OLD habits die hard. No institution in Turkey lives up to that adage more than its meddlesome army, which is embroiled in yet another row with the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. The latest mischief-making concerns an alleged plan that was hatched last April to overthrow AK and to incriminate Turkey’s largest and most influential Islamic brotherhood, led by a moderate preacher called Fetullah Gulen.
A copy of the “Plan to Combat Islamic Fundamentalism” was published by Taraf, a liberal daily newspaper, on June 12th. It promptly sparked a political storm that has left the army on the defensive. Signed by Dursun Cicek, a colonel serving in the army’s psychological warfare unit, the plan calls for “mobilising agents” within AK to discredit the party through their actions and words. Worse, it speaks of planting weapons in the homes of members of Mr Gulen’s movement, with a view to demonstrating that they are “terrorists” with links to separatist Kurdish PKK rebels.
Another aim of the plan was apparently to use the media to galvanise nationalist support against Armenia and Greece. And the authors also wanted to clear the names of officers who are being prosecuted for past coup plots against AK as part of the so-called Ergenekon conspiracy.
Skulduggery of this kind is not exactly new in Turkey. The army, which has seized power three times directly, used similar tactics to unseat the country’s first Islamist-led government in 1997. In 2004 a group of generals cooked up various schemes to overthrow AK on the grounds that it was seeking to introduce religious rule. Yet for once the government is fighting back. It has laid a formal complaint with public prosecutors, calling for a full criminal investigation into an attempted coup. Colonel Cicek, who protests his innocence, has been called to testify before prosecutors dealing with the Ergenekon case. “If the allegations are true, the situation is dire,” declared Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, after a 70-minute meeting with Ilker Basbug, the chief of the general staff.
The general denies all knowledge of the affair, but he has promised to punish any of his men who are guilty. The general staff has launched its own investigation. But army prosecutors have rushed to declare that there is no evidence that the plan was devised at its headquarters, even if they could not refute its existence. “This statement has only reinforced suspicions,” sneered Bekir Bozdag, an AK whip.
If the plot was really conceived without General Basbug’s knowledge, it was probably the act of a group of renegade officers within the army. This theory was buttressed by a recently retired general, who told Taraf that he knew of “five or six people” who were bent on unseating AK, adding that he had warned General Basbug of their plans. Another less likely story is that the police, heavily penetrated by Gulenists, forged the document to embarrass the army.
Certainly there is little trust between the army, the government and the security services. Many hope the affair will give Mr Basbug a chance to prove his democratic credentials and root out rogue elements once and for all. Yet the signs are not encouraging. Colonel Cicek has not been suspended during the inquiry. And army prosecutors have slapped a legally dubious ban on any coverage of it.
The onus is now on Mr Erdogan to insist to the generals that they must take orders from him and not the other way round. His meeting with General Basbug suggests that he may be more interested in cutting deals. That is what he supposedly did with the general’s predecessor, Yasar Buyukanit, who had issued a statement on the internet in April 2007 threatening to seize power. Soon afterwards Mr Erdogan met General Buyukanit for two hours. Both vowed secrecy, prompting speculation of a truce.
This new scandal suggests that, no matter how many conspiracies it survives, AK will remain a target of those who resent its encroachment on their traditional bastions of power. Ominously, the prosecutor who launched the court closure case against AK in 2008 has now made the bizarre complaint that the government is focusing “too much on economic growth” at the expense of secularism. He has also spoken against proposed constitutional changes that would make it more difficult to ban political parties. Mr Erdogan needs to stick to his guns and push through these changes. The best response to an attack on democracy is more democracy.