Monday, 21 February 2011

Turkey's Polarized Climate Complicates Efforts to Deal With Past and Present Authoritarianism

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 4, no. 4 of the Turkey Analyst)

In the deeply polarized climate that pervades Turkish society, it has become near-impossible to stake out an ideological terrain that would enable the country to come to terms with an authoritarianism that is in fact a generalized phenomenon haunting the country. There is a compulsion to take sides either for the AKP or for the generals, who are convicted or acquitted depending on political preferences. Liberal values, on the other hand, risk being sacrificed as Turkey neglects to take a comprehensive look at its authoritarian past and present.

BACKGROUND: On February 11, the court that is trying one hundred and sixty three active duty and retired members of the Turkish armed forces accused of having sought to overthrow the government of the Justice and development party (AKP) ruled that the defendants be arrested and imprisoned. Among those who were arrested and later transferred to prison were retired general İbrahim Fırtına, the former commander of the air force, retired admiral Özden Örnek, the former commander of the navy and retired general Ergin Saygun, the former deputy chief of the General staff, who was subsequently hospitalized. After this unprecedented court decision, ten percent of the generals and admirals in the Turkish armed forces, thirty out of a total of 301, are now incarcerated.

Then, a few days later, police detained Soner Yalçın, an anti-AKP nationalist columnist in the daily Hürriyet and the owner, together with two of his co-workers, of the OdaTv website. The arrests took place in connection with the investigation into the alleged Ergenekon organization, which prosecutors claim has sought to create chaos in the country with the aim of paving the way for a military takeover. Yalçın and the two other journalists were later arrested, charged with “membership in a terrorist organization”, of “having obtained and disseminated information that concerns the security of the state” and of “having incited the population to hatred and enmity.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denied that the arrested journalists were going to be tried because of their political views and because of what they had written; Erdoğan stated that they were suspected of what he described as “other activities”. That appears to be a reference to the fact that the website in question has publicized documents that allegedly disprove some of the claims of the Ergenekon prosecution. Whatever the case, both the incarceration of the military officers and the arrest of the anti-government journalists has further polarized Turkish society and politics.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) dismissed the allegation that there is any organization called Ergenekon. “Where is this organization? Show me, so that I can become a member”, Kılıçdaroğlu defiantly stated. Commenting on the incarceration of the nearly two hundred active duty and retired military officers, the leader of the CHP expressed his deep concern, claiming that “it was apparent at the beginning that this process was politicized. We all know that most of the documents [that allegedly prove that a military coup had been planned] are forgeries”. The disclosure of a new stack of incriminating documents at the navy headquarters in Gölcük in December 2010 has not altered Kılıçdaroğlu’s view about the character of the case. Speaking to a group of journalists from the Doğan Media Group, which has been targeted and fined by the government, Kılıçdaroğlu warned that “they [the AKP government] will put everyone in prison, starting with the deputies of the CHP after the election in June; then the turn will come to you journalists who express dissenting views”.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s accusatory statements have a significant, receptive audience in Turkey. The belief is widespread among secularist middle class circles that the AKP government is bent on instituting an authoritarian regime and that the trials of the generals, as well as the Ergenekon trial, is nothing but political show-trials that aim at intimidating and silencing all opposition to the ruling party. Kılıçdaroğlu notably raised a legitimate concern when he inquired why the presiding judges in the Sledgehammer case (in which the military officers are being tried) had been replaced prior to the decision of the court to place all of the accused under arrest. The High board of judges and prosecutors (HSYK) replied that the judges were under investigation for having received bribes, and that keeping them in charge of the trial would have jeopardized the public trust in the integrity of the judiciary. Yet that in turn raised the question of the legitimacy of the trial proceedings that had been presided over by the now replaced judges since the Sledgehammer trial got started three months ago. The replacement of the judges could only fuel the suspicions of those who have never had any faith in the proceedings in the Sledgehammer case in the first place.

Soner Yalcin

IMPLICATIONS: Recent developments have underlined the polarization from which Turkey suffers; competing narratives make it extremely difficult for Turkey to come to terms with authoritarianism, past and present. Hasan Bülent Kahraman, a left-leaning columnist in the daily Sabah and an academic, expressed the view that dominates in liberal and other pro-government circles when he recently wrote that the Sledgehammer case represents a milestone in Turkey’s democratization. He exhorted everyone to agree that trying military personnel for coup plans is a historic step. “By all means, mistakes (in the legal proceedings) should be avoided, but isn’t the fact that coup planners are being tried something everyone should welcome?” That was indeed the case in countries like Greece, Spain, Chile and Argentina; in those cases the settling of accounts with military dictatorship was embraced by vast majorities, and future democratization was not called into question.

In Turkey, however, far from everyone agrees that the accused generals and other officers have been guilty of any wrongdoing, and a significant minority doubts that those who now settle accounts with the alleged coup makers are themselves democrats. The fact that the recently arrested journalists were charged with having “incited the population to hatred and enmity” indeed suggests that the regime that the AKP is establishing does not significantly differ from the past authoritarianism. Historically, that statute was regularly deployed by the Turkish state in order to curtail freedom of expression. While the generals are already convicted in the eyes of liberals and conservative AKP supporters, they are concurrently acquitted in the eyes of the secularist-nationalists. As CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu stated, “we all know” that most of the evidence against the military officers are “forgeries”.

The case of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu illustrates how difficult it has become to stake out a middle ground in Turkish politics. Kılıçdaroğlu is in fact no friend of military authoritarianism; in his first statements upon being elected CHP leader nearly a year ago, Kılıçdaroğlu condemned all previous military coups in Turkey, including the “post-modern” coup in 1997 which toppled the country’s first Islamist prime minister. Now, however, he is compelled to make statements that more or less exonerate the military.

On the other hand, Turkey’s influential liberal intellectuals tend to exonerate the AKP out of hand, at most admitting only that some “mistakes” may have been made in the legal proceedings. What is lacking in the liberal response to recent and similar events in the past is a willingness to question the AKP’s democratic credentials; the ruling party’s democratic nature is more or less taken at face value. The incarceration of the generals serves precisely the purpose of bolstering the AKP’s liberal credibility; from a liberal perspective, it underlines that the AKP is waging a battle for freedom.

Similarly, the secularist opponents of the AKP have all too unquestioningly rallied to the cause of the military, disseminating the narrative according to which the generals are innocent victims of a vendetta waged by the AKP. That may or may not be the case, but the problem is that the secularists neglect to take a wider view of the insidious role that the military has played in the politics of the country, and the impact that this permanent intervention has had on Turkey’s democratic evolution.

CONCLUSIONS: In the deeply polarized climate that pervades Turkish society, it has become near-impossible stake out an ideological terrain that would enable the country to come to terms with an authoritarianism that is in fact a generalized phenomenon that haunts Turkey. There is a compulsion to take sides either for the AKP or for the generals, who are convicted or acquitted depending on political preferences. The result is that liberal values risk being sacrificed as Turkey neglects to take a comprehensive and critical look at its authoritarian past and present.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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