The news of the last week from Turkey should worry us. More than 50 military officers, some of them among the nation’s most senior, have been arrested in the government’s ongoing investigation of the so-called “Ergenekon” conspiracy. That investigation, underway since 2007, long ago surpassed the alleged conspiracy in its heroic scope, having detained an increasingly unbelievable array of journalists, teachers, artists, jurists, students, businessmen, and soldiers alongside the occasional genuine terrorist. Analysts both sympathetic and skeptical have concluded that the Ergenekon investigations are intended mainly to purge the ranks of Turkey’s enduring secular establishment – in the courts, the schools, local government, and the military – and consolidate power for the Islamists in Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Why is now the time to worry? There are two primary reasons. One is that the arrests of the last 48 hours involve military officers of unprecedented seniority. Going after them constitutes a direct challenge to the military and its self-appointed role as guardian of the secular state. In pro-wrestling parlance, this is a “smack down.”
The earlier stages of the Ergenekon inquest could, in fact, be seen as the closing of a vise around the senior ranks of the military. In conjunction with AKP’s other activities to undermine the constitutional bulwarks of Turkish secularism (see the Middle East Forum link above), the Ergenekon drama has dismantled or intimidated much of the infrastructure the generals would rely on for their defense.
The Turkish military may respond in kind, but in 2010 it is not in the position to remove AKP from power with the issuing of an order, as it did with AKP’s Islamist predecessor in 1997. The military’s leadership accepted an effective procedural subordination to civilian politicians in the last decade – in theory a positive move. The military still has armed power, of course, but it would have to wield that power overtly in a pitched confrontation to unseat the Erdogan government. The military hasn’t done that since 1960, and in the absence of a Soviet-level threat would find it hard to justify to Turkey’s NATO allies (as well as putting the kibosh, with such a move, on Turkey’s EU hopes).
If the coming days demonstrate that AKP has achieved political ascendancy – if, that is, the military doesn’t react – the second reason for worry will come to the fore.
AKP’s trademark posture is, of course, that Islamism should be a legitimate element of politics in Turkey, a direct contradiction of modern Turkey’s founding principle of secularism. But that isn’t the only problem. A subtler but equally significant concern is that the country’s secular establishment has been the guarantor of stability, both in internal security and foreign policy. Its independence and effectiveness are the basis for Turkey’s modernization and cultivation of a middle class; for the respect with which NATO, Russia, and Iran all approach Turkey; and for Turkey’s relative freedom today from foreign-sponsored internal agitation. Erdogan can’t break the secular establishment without breaking Turkey.
A broken Turkey, one ruled by a single-party government with no effective checks on it by the courts, military, or press, would be more susceptible to internal strife rather than less. The AKP has tried to establish primacy over transnational Islamists (such as the shadowy Hizb ut-Tahrir that has deep roots in Central Asia and the Caucasus) by indicting their representatives in Turkey as part of the Ergenekon campaign. But that only works in a relatively peaceful, orderly civic situation; i.e., one in which Turkey is well-defended, her responses to Kurdish and Islamist separatists are military and have the moral support of the people, and the populace at large has a reasonable level of trust in the police and local officials. This is exactly the situation Erdogan is systematically undoing.
Turkey has been playing East and West off against each other for centuries – as we would do if we were Turkey. Geography dictates much. But her Ottoman history ought to remind Turks that a weak military and internal dissension make foreign political alignments indispensable: otherwise Turkey turns into prey. Turkey will need NATO, Iran, or Russia, more than vice versa, if she turns inward, if she makes her military a politically-connected rather than professional organization, and if she vaunts religious and ethnic vindication over the leveling – unifying – secularism instituted by Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan couldn’t take any set of steps more guaranteed than those to attract the destabilizing attentions of transnational Islamists, and ultimately of subversion by proxy.
This has to worry not just Turks but the whole region. A vulnerable Turkey is a big swath of strategic territory begging to be exploited by someone.
There’s a possibility of correcting Turkey’s course at the ballot box in the 2011 parliamentary elections. AKP’s national support dropped from 47% in the 2007 election to 39% in 2009. It’s shaping up to be a pitched political confrontation, however, and the question grows more serious with each new Ergenekon arrest whether the 2011 election will be conducted honestly. What is needed is the prospect of a unified rival bloc with popular support, something AKP’s main opposition – the elderly Republican People’s Party, or CHP – is unlikely to come up with, at least in its current incarnation.
The most stabilizing prospect would involve a resurgence of “Kemalism” among younger citizens, and tacit support for a unified opposition political slate from the military. But as this late-2009 essay from a Turkish writer indicates, the reach of surveillance against private citizens in AKP-run Turkey has become pretty intrusive. It’s no longer a given that the opposition parties will have the latitude to plan and act independently.
Maybe the military will risk international condemnation, and the very real possibility of bloodshed across Turkey, to force out the Erdogan government. But this time, I doubt it. Erdogan is busy as I type selling his proposed revisions to the Turks’ Kemalist (secularist) constitution as measures to satisfy the EU. Indeed, detention of some of the top military officers could even be a means of keeping them locked up while he presses his party’s agenda to break the constitution’s constraints on religious party activism.
As with all things Turkish, the development of this drama will no doubt look to us like the grounds at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee: sludgy, impenetrable, swirling with a slowness bordering on the unbearable. But the signs are there that this is it: Turkey’s biggest constitutional crisis in a half century is underway. The outcome will matter, and sooner than we think.
Cross-posted at Hot Air’s Greenroom.