“Military coups are no longer possible in Turkey.” These words belong to Vedat Bilgin, a professor from Gazi University and former right-hand man of the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
He seems to be right in his assessment, given the fact that the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup and the Feb. 28, 1997 postmodern coup are now under judicial investigation, with the all-powerful generals responsible now facing trial. And to top it all off, Parliament, with the backing of all parties represented in that body, has formed a commission, composed of 17 members, to probe the past coups d’état as well as all attempts and processes that serve to render democracy dysfunctional. The committee will conduct research, talk to the victims of the coups and write a report, outlining what Turkey should do to achieve a first-class democracy.
So, Turkey, which was subjected to four major military coups or military interventions -- on May 27, 1960; March 12, 1971; Sept. 12, 1980; and Feb. 28 1997 -- is dealing with the military coups that it suffered. “Turkey is now on its way to becoming a state governed by the rule of law,” Bilgin told Sunday’s Zaman, interpreting the latest judicial investigations into the coups.
It was not easy for Turkey to arrive at this point. By most accounts, it is the transformation society has gone through that has, in a major way, paved the way for democracy to gain strength in Turkey. The rising middle class and rising economic power of the small and medium-size enterprises of Anatolia, popularly called “Anadolu kaplanları” (Anatolian Tigers), as opposed to the major capital holders in İstanbul, are forcing the country to change, gradually breaking away from bureaucratic and military tutelage. But, according to Bilgin, what makes the present situation different from previous periods is the stance of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.
Now, the government demonstrates the political will to end military coups. Noting that political elites also need to support and complement the developments in order to do away with the circumstances that enabled the military to intervene, he said, “We are going through this process today.”
If it weren’t for such a stance on the part of the government, the judiciary would have reacted as in the past, in conformity with the framework of the established bureaucratic and military order, he claimed. Bilgin, who reckons the judiciary is the third component of the efforts towards greater democratization, thinks the judiciary, having grasped this is an historical moment of change for Turkey, has acted in cooperation with other social and political actors. “History has moments of change. And we now are going through one of the most important of those in Turkey,” he stated.
Yılmaz Tunç, AK Party deputy and spokesperson for the parliamentary Justice Commission, also believes this judicial process will serve to further democratize Turkey. Noting that with former top-level military figures being charged with plotting coups, the present cases will have a pre-emptive effect on those who may think of staging a coup in the future. “The cases will demonstrate that no fault is to go unpunished and that those responsible can even be called to account years later,” he stressed to Sunday’s Zaman.
Doğu Ergil, a columnist for Sunday’s Zaman and professor at Fatih University, thinks it is a mindset -- more than particular individuals -- that is being judged in this process. According to Ergil, who also believes the era of military coups in Turkey has now ended, bureaucrats, civilians and the military are in the habit of seeing themselves above society, “gifted” with a sort of transcendent will, a will above that of society, which lead them to believe they are entitled to shape politics and society as they wish in Turkey. Noting that this structure, which Turkey inherited from the Ottoman Empire, feels no need to account for its deeds in society, in the name of which it presumes to act, he told Sunday’s Zaman, “This mentality needs to be condemned.”
In other words, politics should be given back to the people. But, right at this point, he conveyed his frustration, saying, “The sad thing is that all political parties, including the present government, which came to power as a representative of civil society, have attempted to put party politics ahead of the state.” He therefore cautions that governments should not lead a fight against military coups by adopting the attitude of a new guardian condemning the former one. The fight should be conducted for the general well-being of society. And it’s exactly this essential element that he finds lacking in the ongoing process against the coups, although he is absolutely in favor of it.
“We are trying those who are responsible for the military interventions, but the Constitution, the political parties law and the election code that the coup d’état of Sept. 12, 1980, put in place are still there,” he said. With the legal and institutional structure remaining nearly intact in a major way, his remarks mean that although the guardians change, tutelage as an institution remains intact.
Ergil is not alone in his criticism of the present picture of Turkish political life. Mehmet Altan, professor of economics at İstanbul University, also draws attention to the paradox that while high-ranking military officers are being tried by the courts today, the majority of the legislation enacted by those generals who staged the coup on Sept. 12, 1980, is intact and continues to shape political life.
For this process to bring about full democracy, Altan, who is also in favor of the judicial proceedings, believes that all elements arising from the Sept. 12 coup need to be removed. Citing as an example the political parties law, which allows party leaders rather than electors to choose a deputy to represent them in Parliament, he claims that the political elite prefers to make a move in the direction of democracy only when it is in their best interest as well. “The democratization of politics is an absolute necessity for democracy to be institutionalized in Turkey,” Altan told Sunday’s Zaman. And if this institutionalization cannot be achieved, there is always a risk of revanchism, he cautioned.
He believes that unless a new political parties law and an election law are prepared, it will not be possible to either get rid of the mentality of Sept. 12 or put up a barricade to block the return of military tutelage. Altan, who believes that a return to military tutelage is not totally out of the question despite the positive environment today, warned that the coup probes should not be handled in such a way as to create a revanchist sentiment. “Don’t forget that Feb. 28 came after the Özal years [a former politician and president of Turkey who left his mark on Turkey in the years following the coup of Sept. 12],” he noted.
However, Tunç, Bilgin and Ergil do not agree that revanchism, a criticism that the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has expressed, has anything to do with the ongoing judicial processes. “It’s just natural for the judiciary to call to account those who committed wrongs in the past. No feeling of revenge is involved,” Tunç said, while Bilgin noted that the motive is not revenge but a sense of justice in the proceedings.
Faruk Bal, deputy chairman of the MHP, is not satisfied with the present situation of the Sept. 12 trial. “It’s not possible to reckon with Sept. 12 by just trying two former generals, both around 90 years old now,” he said to Sunday’s Zaman. Noting that those who gave or followed the unlawful orders and those who tortured prisoners during the Sept. 12 coup d’état are not included in the case; to reckon with Sept. 12 is to reckon with the torture at Mamak Prison, he stressed. Bal also said he finds it strange, a criticism shared by most, that the April 27, 2007 e-memorandum, which the chief of General Staff of the time placed on the web page of the General Staff, still has not been investigated, although its author is known, and it is an act that was clearly against democracy and carried out during AK Party rule.
All agree that the judicial investigations should also extend to earlier military coups as well. Such a step would be a clear sign that no infringement on democracy will be allowed to go unpunished. So, everybody is sure to think twice before engaging in plots against democracy in the future. Let justice be done.