On May 27, 1960, Turkish military officers arrested democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, and members of his cabinet. Menderes was placed on a trial before a military-orchestrated special court on charges of treason, and was subsequently hanged. For the last half century, Turkey has been struggling to overcome this original sin in civil-military relations.
Finally, there are some encouraging signs that Turkey has made progress in forging a stable democratic system. Turkish militarists are increasingly the subjects of legal and societal scrutiny -- despite their best attempts to turn back the clock on Turkey's democracy.
Contrary to the views of some Turkish and Western analysts, the primary struggle within Turkey is not between Islam and secularism, but rather between a militaristic pseudo-autocracy and liberal democracy.
In June 2009, the daily newspaper Taraf courageously published what the editors said was a leaked military document that included covert operations to undermine the elected Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and marginalize its base of support. Among the tactics was the planting of weapons in the dormitories of students sympathizing with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen and later confiscating those weapons in order to depict the movement, which is resolutely non-violent, as a terrorist organization.
Attempting to contain the fallout from these revelations, Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug rushed in front of the cameras and vowed the document was just a "piece of paper," setting the tone for others in Turkey's nationalist-secularist circles. To them, this could only be a fabrication of the "Islamists," who would like to discredit the military, the self-proclaimed guardian of self-styled secularism. They constantly overlooked reports submitted by top official forensic institutions in Turkey to civilian prosecutors confirming the authenticity of the document. In March, the military prosecution also concluded that the signature on the document belonged to Dursun Cicek, a colonel working for the Turkish General Staff at the time.
In January 2010 Taraf again exposed a mind-boggling story: portions of an approximately 5,000-page-long document involving an alleged military coup plan from 2003, called "Sledgehammer." The scenario described in the documents was explosive: A group of senior officers was deliberating on how to destabilize Turkey to pave the way for a military takeover. Their creative ideas included the deliberate downing of a Turkish fighter jet to escalate tension with Greece and bombing two major Istanbul mosques to provoke social unrest. Consequently, dozens of active duty and retired military officers, among them generals, have been arrested by a civilian court.
The initial reaction of the militarist camp was familiar: denial, cover-up, and accusations of a vast conspiracy by Gulen's supposed sympathizers in the military, the police and the judiciary.
All this points to an unprecedented revolution in Turkish politics. This is the first time in modern Turkish history that the military's lack of accountability is being challenged in such a high-profile way. The generals have accomplished at least four direct military interventions in Turkey over the last five decades and always got away with them. Not this time.
The spirit of Turkey's new reformist trend is best exemplified by a landmark trial and investigation into Ergenekon, an agglomeration of many different groups comprising scores of military officers and militarist civilians dedicated to preserving the crumbling Cold War-era regime in Turkey. According to prosecutors, Ergenekon suspects laid the groundwork for a military takeover by employing vicious tactics, including political assassinations, terrorist bombings, and propaganda directed by the friendly media at the Turkish public.
The Ergenekon investigators had previously discovered the documents, which they say bear the signature of Colonel Cicek, even before they were made public by Taraf. Seized maps led police to the sites of secret stockpiles of military-owned weapons buried underground. The documents also revealed the purpose of such weapons. According to an operation called "the Cage plan," undersigned by numerous military officers, they would clandestinely harass and kill non-Muslim figures in Turkey in order to put the blame on the ruling AK Party.
The militarist lobby has highlighted some of the problems of the Ergenekon investigation, such as early-morning police raids of the suspects and poor wording in the initial indictments. Overall, however, the prosecution's case seems very strong. It is supported by court-ordered telephone wiretaps, seized documents, a large amount of explosives and weapons, detailed assassination plans, and military records. In a country where the military has repeatedly intervened in political affairs, such a conspiracy is not inconceivable.
Encouragingly, the Turkish public has also shown considerable support for the case. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a recent MetroPOLL survey, conducted in March 2010, expressed support for the detention and arrest of military suspects associated with the alleged 2003 coup plan. A major exception, not surprisingly, are members of Turkey's old guard. In the same poll, nearly 70 percent of Republican People's Party (CHP) voters, a favorite party of the old establishment, disagreed with the indictments.