ISTANBUL // As investigations into alleged coup plots hatched in the ranks of the Turkish military reach former generals long thought to be untouchable by civilian law and oversight, the country is split between those who see the latest developments as part of a process of democratisation and those who accuse the government of humiliating the armed forces in an effort to get rid of its most powerful domestic opponent.
Acting on orders of state prosecutors in Istanbul, police arrested 49 members of the military this week, among them the former commanders of Turkey's air force and navy as well as other former generals and high-ranking serving officers. They are accused of involvement in plans to topple the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, which is suspected of having a secret Islamist agenda by many in the strictly secular armed forces. Prosecutors began questioning the suspects yesterday.
"It is really historic," Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said yesterday. "Four-star generals have been taken from their homes under criminal charges." Accusations against the officers centre on a war game code-named "Sledgehammer" that was used in an exercise by top commanders in 2003 and that included steps to unseat the Erdogan government by creating chaos in the country with the help of terrorist attacks, according to press reports.
Prosecutors in Istanbul have also been investigating an illegal organisation called Ergenekon that is said to have had the same aim. Dozens of suspected Ergenekon members, among them several former generals, have been standing trial in Istanbul for more than a year. But nothing in the Ergenekon case has come close to the police action of this week, when Ibrahim Firtina and Ozden Ornek, the former chiefs of the air force and the navy, respectively, were arrested in raids conducted in several provinces, some by units of the anti-terror police. "Sledgehammer against the commanders," a news headline read yesterday.
The mass arrest of men who until recently held top positions in the military would be a spectacular development in any country. But in Turkey, where the military has pushed four governments from power since 1960 and publicly threatened to bring down the Erdogan government only three years ago, the police action is seen as a dramatic turning point. Some observers, such as Mr Aktar, see the arrests as a part of a positive development. "This is a long and overdue process of demilitarisation of Turkey," he said.
For a long time, Turkey had been governed "from the top down", with the military enjoying a position of power unconnected to the will of the electorate. "This is now on the verge of being turned around," he said. "We are at the very beginning of it. This is not over, far from it." This is exactly what other Turks are afraid of. "We are watching developments with concern," Deniz Baykal, the leader of the opposition in parliament, told reporters. Some of Mr Baykal's comments reflected a fear that the republic might have been fatally weakened by hostile powers. "It is almost as if Turkey is under occupation, as if a foreign power had come in."
Mr Baykal's Republican People's Party, or CHP, accuses Mr Erdogan's government of trying to weaken the military to be free to pursue an Islamist agenda. Like the CHP, parts of the public, the media and the state bureaucracy see the military as the only institution that stands between the republic and a complete takeover by what they regard as Islamist forces. During some of the latest raids, small groups of demonstrators gathered to protest against the police action by singing patriotic songs.
The military regards itself as the guardian of the republic with the right and even the duty to step in if the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder who was himself a general, is perceived to be under threat. Generals were long treated like heroes by the media, and the military enjoyed popularity ratings of around 90 per cent until recently. But in the course of reforms launched in support of Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the traditional role of the military has come under pressure. Laws strengthening free speech made it easier for the media to scrutinise the generals' behaviour, while other reforms clipped the military's ability to wield political influence in institutions such as the national security council in Ankara.
The suspected involvement of officers in the Ergenekon case and a string of press reports about suspected coup plans by military officers have further eroded the military's impeccable image. According to a recent poll, approval ratings for the military have fallen to 60 per cent. Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of the general staff, has said the military has become the victim of a smear campaign. But at the same time, he has been forced to state publicly that the army was committed to the principles of democracy and the days of military coups were over.
That may no longer be enough to maitain respect for the military. Mehmet Ali Birand, a journalist and expert on the inner workings of the Turkish military, recently wrote in the Posta newspaper that Gen Basbug had to "get rid of rotten apples" in the army to regain the trust of the public. Seen in that light, the latest arrests may be a sign that Gen Basbug is trying to do just that. "Those arrests could not have taken place without Basbug's consent," Mr Aktar said. "He is clearly obliged to clean the army."