x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turkey grapples, again, with fears of coup

The arrests of two former generals and other opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdogan have raised fears of another coup in Ankara?

Pro-secular demonstrators, mostly women, chant anti-government slogans in Ankara.
Pro-secular demonstrators, mostly women, chant anti-government slogans in Ankara.

ISTANBUL // The arrests of two former generals and other opponents of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, on charges of plotting to overthrow the government have reignited a debate many thought they would never hear again in a country aspiring to become an EU member: could there be another coup in Ankara? Turkey has seen four governments deposed by military interventions since 1960, the last in 1997. The suspicion the army or some officers may try to seize power again has been strengthened by the decision by a judge in Istanbul to place two former four-star generals - Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon - in custody. They, and other suspects, were arrested last week and are to be charged with trying to overthrow the government and forming an armed gang, according to media reports. The arrests, which were made in connection with an investigation against a right-wing militant group called Ergenekon, shocked the country. Some Turks actually thought the next coup was at hand. When hundreds of soldiers of the gendarmerie, which is responsible for law enforcement outside Turkey's big cities, searched houses and arrested more than 30 people in an anti-corruption investigation in the small western town of Kaynaklar last week, residents thought the army had seized power. "We saw soldiers had been deployed on squares and in the streets," Mahmut Yalaz, 65, a resident, was quoted by Turkish newspapers as saying. "Among neighbours, we were saying: 'There must have been a coup against the government.'" Eruygur and Tolon, the former generals, are accused of being involved in a plot to create an atmosphere of chaos in Turkey by mass demonstrations and assassinations to provoke a coup by the army. Both men are known as critics of Mr Erdogan, and as followers of the Kemalist ideology, which goes back to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, and which holds that Islam has to be tightly controlled by the state. Kemalists accuse Mr Erdogan of wanting to turn Turkey into an Islamist state. If convicted, both could face life in prison. "For the first time, a coup attempt is being brought before the judiciary," Zaman, the pro-government daily newspaper, said in an editorial. News reports have linked Eruygur, who leads the Kemalist Association for Ataturk's Ideas, or ADD, and was involved in organising anti-government rallies last year, with at least two nascent coup attempts while he was still serving in the army. The attempts were thwarted by the army leadership of the time, the reports said. Mr Eruygur retired in 2004. "Does Turkey continue its way with coup leaders or with democracy?" Mustafa Elitas, a leading member of Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, or AKP, asked during a debate in parliament last week. One of the deeper reasons for the new debate about a possible coup is a lack of trust in civilian politicians and in the ability of the democratic process to deliver solutions for problems facing society, observers said. "Elected politicians have always been suspect and at the mercy of the military establishment," Ayse Kadioglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's private Sabanci University, told a recent panel of analysts discussing Turkey's political crisis. "There is an expectation [in society] that the army steps in and makes things normal again," Etyen Mahcupyan, a writer and intellectual, told the same panel. Mr Mahcupyan said many Turks saw the army "as an institution we can trust". The coup of 1980, when the army stepped in after violent street clashes between leftists and nationalists, was welcomed by many Turks at the time. The generals handed back power to civilian politicians three years later but have held on to a politically influential position ever since. In the present confrontation between Kemalists and Mr Erdogan's AKP, which started after the party came to power in Nov 2002, some Kemalists view the army as a kind of safety net that can prevent the country from turning into an Islamist state. "Army, do your duty," read placards shown at an ADD demonstration in 2003. But a crisis last year that erupted when the AKP was determined to have Abdullah Gul, their foreign minister at the time, elected president by parliament showed that the threat of a military intervention can backfire badly for the army and its supporters. After Mr Gul was officially named as the AKP's candidate for the presidency in April last year, the general staff issued what became known as the "midnight memorandum" on its website, warning of a coup in case Mr Gul was elected. The threat triggered early elections in July in which the AKP won a landslide victory with nearly 47 per cent of the vote. Mr Gul was elected in August. Last year's experience, a growing awareness that the country should stay on the path of democracy and the fact that a military coup would put an end to Turkey's EU bid have led to a sense that military interventions are a thing of the past. "Neither sharia nor coup d'état," wrote Hikmet Cetinkaya, a columnist for the Kemalist daily newspaper Cumhuriyet and one of Mr Erdogan's sharpest critics. "I see democracy as a way of life," he wrote. Even within the army itself, the readiness to contemplate another intervention is weakening, according to Mehmet Ali Birand, a journalist and TV anchor who has been following trends within the army for years. "In general, it is being accepted [within the military] that it is impossible to stage a coup like in the old times," Mr Birand wrote in Posta, a daily newspaper. Other observers are less optimistic. "I think that people who want to stage a coup in our time would have zero chances for success," Rusen Cakir, a respected commentator, wrote in another daily newspaper, Vatan. "But I also think the following: There are many people in today's Turkey who would like a coup to be staged or even want to stage a coup themselves and who do not think like I do - they think that a coup could be successful." tseibert@thenational.ae