Turkey’s once mighty generals are being asked to answer for their past actions in court. Preventing the military from interfering in the country’s political life is an important step toward democratization, but one that can only lead to lasting and genuine change if it is accompanied by a broader reflection on the ideology and the mechanisms of power in this country and what, beyond a functioning election system, constitutes democratic rule.
If accountability and respect for the elected leadership are clearly crucial elements of a democracy, they are only two of the many “ingredients” that make a system accountable and reflective of the diversity inherent in all societies.
The arrest of former Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Başbuğ, the latest in a series of high-ranking officers accused in recent years of plotting against the government, can only mark the beginning of a new period for Turkey if it leads to a change of mentality and a different perception of threats. Turkey also needs a judicial system that does not involve lengthy pre-trial periods of detention that amount to a sentence served before guilt has been established.
For decades, the military maintained its stronghold over the country by promoting a nationalist ideology based on fear. They sustained the perception that the country, threatened by numerous internal enemies, real and imagined, was in imminent danger of disintegration. Armenians and other non-Muslims, Alevis, Kurds, leftists and indeed Muslim conservatives have all at one time or another been considered a danger to the survival of the republic as the generals saw it. Their unsuccessful attempts to undermine the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their more successful campaign against previous conservative governments, including the Welfare Party (RP) government in 1997, were based on such assumptions.
On three separate occasions, the army took power by force, killed people, sent tens of thousands of people to jail and tortured many of them. Tanks were sent to the streets of Sincan to send a powerful message during the postmodern coup of 1997, but by then the country, including its political elite and its media, had internalized the lessons of previous interventions to such an extent that a media campaign was enough to lead to the collapse of the government.
When it comes to the anti-government propaganda via Internet websites that now figures on Gen. Başbuğ’s charge sheet, as well as the e-memorandum of 2007, the actions were more subtle still. The correct answer would have been to dismiss the officers involved at the time, rather than arrest them now. They were after all civil servants. Their attempts to undermine the government could only succeed with the implicit acceptance -- by the readers, by the media relaying the message and indeed by the politicians reacting to the statements -- that any opinion expressed by high-ranking officers must be taken seriously.
Many foreign observers have struggled over the years to understand the collective drawing of breath that you could hear resonate throughout the country whenever officers issued uncompromising statements. But none of us had been through the education system here, nor had we experienced the brutal episodes that conditioned people and politicians to believe that ignoring these views would have dire consequences. The first chink in the army’s armor was seen after the 1999 earthquake, when the army came under strong criticism for its delayed response. But all it took to silence angry voices at the time was for then-Chief of General Staff Gen. Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu to blame the foreign media for fomenting discord.
Turkey’s current rulers, who won 50 percent of the vote last June, were viewed by many in the republican elite and the army as a danger to this country. They have now turned the tables on those who once defined the country’s thinking, drew the red policy lines and decided who was an enemy. But in the process, they seem to have absorbed some of their ideology on a number of issues. When one hears Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin extend the definition of terrorism to include painters and poets, one wonders if the mentality that once sent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to prison for reading a poem in public has radically changed.
For decades, the armed forces primarily defended the interests of a small elite. Rule by an elected government that commands the support of a majority is an important step in the right direction, but it is still short of full democratization. The real test of a democracy is how minorities -- understood not in the Treaty of Lausanne sense, but as people who have lifestyles, beliefs and ideologies that differ from those of the majority -- are treated, and whether they are allowed to maintain their own identities and express their views freely while enjoying all the rights of citizenship. Removing the red lines and creating a more inclusive framework has to be Turkey’s next challenge.