The publication Jun. 12 of an article in Taraf, a liberal newspaper, of an alleged plan by army officers to overthrow the government and incriminate Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader and founder of the country’s largest Muslim brotherhood, revived the polemic over the role of the military in the governance of the nation.

Although Taraf’s scoop stirred indignation among politicians from all sides, the spirits remained calm for the past two weeks. But the verdict last Wednesday of the General Staff military prosecutor that the plan revealed was not prepared at TSK headquarters, and his decision not to file charges against the plan’s purported author, Col. Dursun Cicek, an officer serving in the army’s psychological warfare unit, triggered the ire of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Over the weekend, senior ministers disclosed that Erdogan would bring additional evidence on the plan and its authors before TSK’s leadership at the National Security Council (MGK) meeting scheduled for this Tuesday. This high-level confrontation is expected to test the limits of the entente between the heads of the state and army.

The plan, according to the accusations by Taraf and AKP, contemplates mobilising agents controlled within AK to discredit the party through their actions and words. It also envisages planting of weapons in the homes of members of Gulen’s movement, in order to make a convincing case that its members are "terrorists" with links to separatist Kurdish PKK rebels.

Manipulation of the media for igniting nationalistic and anti-Greek and Armenian feelings among the public is another milestone in the plan.

Military coups are a periodical occurrence in Turkish politics. Since the end of World War II, there have been three dictatorships, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and a "post-modern" coup, when on Feb. 28, 1997 the MGK demanded that "the forces of reaction should be confronted", precipitating the collapse of the government and its replacement by a secularist coalition.

The "forces of reaction" in the event was a reference to the Welfare Party (RP), the first Islamist political movement to have won legislative elections in the country. Its leadership, including Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, was banned from politics for several years. Erdogan also served prison as a result of this crisis. After the victory of the newly formed AKP, successor to RP, in the 2002 national elections, and especially after the return in 2003 to politics of Erdogan and his appointment to premiership, senior army officers became again more vigilant.

When, in April 2007, Abdullah Gul, a leader within AKP, remained the sole candidate to the presidency of the state, the Chief of the General Staff, at that time Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, issued a warning against the appointment of an Islamist at the top office of the republic, implying that the armed forces might intervene. An arm-wrestling contest began, which ended in August at a confidential meeting between the PM and Buyukanit.

No spectacular incidents have been observed since. On Aug. 28, 2007, Gul was elected President by the AKP-dominated parliament. His swearing-in ceremony, held the same day, was not attended by the Chief of the General Staff. Tradition, supported by certain articles of the Constitution, calls for the army’s allegiance to the principles defended by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a resolute secularist.

Gul is the first head of the state to have an Islamist background. He served between 1983 and 1991 at the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia, where his wife Hayrunnisa completed her university studies. The First Lady wears the Islamic scarf in all her appearances. The President is a supporter of Fethullah Gulen, who is resident in the U.S..

Following the appeasement in the AKP-TSK relations, the Turkish parliament voted overwhelmingly in August 2007 in favour of the invasion of northern Iraq to hunt down armed insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U.

The TSK had previously been asked to refrain from such expedition, on the insistence of the U.S. In the end, however, the Turkish army entered north Iraq in February 2008.

Political life took its normal course. On the surface only, however, because in the meantime the government had started legal proceedings to bring to justice 89 politicians, journalists, and retired military officers, suspected to have conspired to overthrow the government. Their trial began last October, on the basis of a 2,500-page indictment, but 39 new arrests, including active officers, were added earlier this year.

The trial has been stretching the nerves of the officers at all levels. Most at TSK believe that the plot is a set-up to discredit the armed forces.

The government claim that the ‘action plan’ to fight Islamic fundamentalism, revealed by Tafar, was masterminded at TSK headquarters could be the drop that will make the vase overflow.

Prime Minister Erdogan and Gen. Iker Basbug, the Chief of General Staff, met at the end of last week privately for over an hour. Their respective positions seem to have remained unchanged.

Gen. Basbug has backed the decision of the military prosecutor, and insisted that the document was not produced at his headquarters. Erdogan remained convinced that the plan is an official army document, and declared that the quest for culprits will be pursued unrelentingly.

This clash may just be the top of the iceberg. Public opinion, which, according to polls, considers the armed forces the most trusted institution of the country, has shown since 2007 that military juntas are no longer in fashion. A plan for a coup could therefore only be the work of an isolated group of officers.

What may be more likely as the cause of the crisis is the diverging agendas of the government and the military on a number of issues, including Cyprus, the Kurdish issue, the recent rapprochement with Armenia, the low-key but systematic introduction of laws that favour Islamist practices in everyday life, the dosed purge of 300 TSK officers this decade so far, and the new constitution intended by AKP which will aim at clipping the wings of the military in order to prove Turkey’s adherence to the process for accessing the European Union.

As the economy is still away from recovery, in spite of daily assurances of local pundits, and the regional situation increasingly unstable, the protagonists of this new version of AKP-TSK performance are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma.
June 30, 2009