Some recent statements and moves by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, particularly his recent visit to retired Gen. Ergin Saygun, have fueled an ongoing debate.
Saygun was convicted in the criminal case concerning the Sledgehammer (Balyoz) coup plan, the aim of which was to overthrow the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.
There are four factors fueling this debate.
1. There is the possibility that Erdoğan may run for president in 2014.
2. The new constitution may change the country's system of government to a presidential or semi-presidential system.
3. As this new constitution is very likely to be taken to a referendum, it is important for the ruling AK Party to secure the backing of supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to ensure the ratification of the new constitution at the referendum. In this context, it is claimed, the government has recently launched the İmralı initiative, which involves brokering peace via negotiations with Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is currently serving a life sentence on İmralı Island off the coast İstanbul, to secure the support of pro-BDP voters.
4. As the prime minister needs more extensive electoral backing for his moves towards a new constitution and presidential system, it is said that many defendants and suspects in the major investigations and trials concerning coups, attempted coups and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) will be released after the fourth judicial reform package is enacted.
Indeed, even many traditional supporters of the prime minister find this change in his discourse and attitudes very odd. I personally believe the ongoing debate has something to do with a question that is crucial for the majority of backers of the AK Party and democratization. Currently, the system of military tutelage has been weakened and coup perpetrators have been put on trial for the first time in history -- the untouchables are being touched. However, has the coup threat really been averted? People who support the AK Party and the process of transition from the tutelage to democracy are split into two groups by their answers to this question.
Those who believe the coup threat has not been warded off basically express their concerns over the government's failure to implement legal reforms that would prevent future coups. They justify their worries by arguing that a century-old illegal network cannot be easily purged. So, they claim, guarantees against coups should be inserted into the Constitution. Moreover, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) should be subordinated to the Defense Ministry, as is the case in other NATO members. If such measures are not taken, the junta members will implement a withdrawal strategy to recover their power and strength and hit back with amplified anger and sentiments of revenge.
Those who believe that the coup threat has been avoided completely tend to view the prime minister's moves from a different angle. They note that Erdoğan has never forgotten the importance of the investigations into Ergenekon -- a clandestine organization nested within the state trying to overthrow or manipulate the democratically elected government -- and the Balyoz coup plan in effecting the transition from tutelage to democracy. We know that the junta members have been obsessively trying to overthrow this government and lending support to the project of “finishing off the ruling AK Party” for the last 10 years. We also know that no progress could have been made in democratization if the AK Party, particularly the prime minister, had not backed it. The prime minister believes that the current commanding officers of the military are considerably loyal to democracy. At a time when Turkey is going through a critical period with respect to its internal and external problems, he believes the morale of the military should be kept high but the lengthy trials are demoralizing the TSK. Therefore, he stresses that the defendants in question should be tried without arrest.
Personally, I do not think the prime minister believes the coup perpetrators are innocent and should not be penalized.
What is maddening is that politicians and members of the media who support tutelage are shouting cries of joy. When they use the prime minister's moves and statements to recruit support for their campaign to vindicate the coup perpetrators and junta members, this leaves one at a loss for words.