A coalition government led by a now-defunct conservative party was forced to step down by the military on Feb. 28, 1997. That was the fourth military intervention in politics, preceded by the ones in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Not only were fatal blows dealt to fundamental rights and freedoms after every coup, but also democracy and the rule of law were suspended. Now that 14 years have passed since the last coup, Turkey is working to settle its accounts with its coup-filled past and the coup instigators. Analysts are hopeful Turkey will eventually get rid of the remnants of the coup tradition but also concerned that the country will go through harder days in its adventure to a stronger democracy.
According to Ahmet Taşgetiren, a columnist for the Bugün daily, the practices of the Feb. 28 process are today being tried in the Ergenekon case. “Accusations currently directed at Ergenekon suspects were like parts of the established system in the Feb. 28 process. Reactionaryism was one of the ‘internal threats' mentioned in the National Security Council [MGK] agenda. This has changed now. Reactionaryism is no longer considered an internal threat. This change is probably the most significant step taken for the democratization of Turkey,” the columnist stated.
Ergenekon is a clandestine criminal organization accused of working to overthrow the government. Dozens of its suspects, including academics, businessmen and journalists, are currently in prison on coup charges.
Turkey started confronting its coup tradition back in 2007 when civilian prosecutors launched an investigation into the discovery of hand grenades in a shanty house in İstanbul. The investigation led to the Ergenekon probe, the greatest probe launched thus far to challenge pro-coup factions in the country. The investigation was later followed by several others that questioned the military’s suspected attempts to interfere in politics and seize control and administration of the country. Over 150 retired and active duty members of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were arrested earlier this week as part of the Sledgehammer coup plan, which includes plans to provoke acts of violence in society to eventually stage a coup.
For Taşgetiren, some traces of Feb. 28 are still evident today, particularly in such fields as politics, the judiciary and education.
“Remember about the closure case filed against the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] in 2008. The ruling party barely escaped closure but was accused of becoming the focal point of anti-secular activities. The accusation openly shows that traces of the postmodern coup are still evident in politics. The judiciary has been rehabilitated and cleansed of remnants of the postmodern coup thanks to judicial reforms, but the impact of Feb. 28 in the field of education remains intact. A clear example of this impact is the latest Council of State decision that blocked the way for headscarf-wearing students to take the Selection Examination for Academic Personnel and Graduate Studies,” the columnist noted.
Candidates wearing the headscarf are required to take off their headscarves when taking state-sponsored exams.
Turkey’s dilemma with the headscarf dates back to the 1980s, but the ban on the Muslim garment was significantly tightened after Feb. 28, 1997. Since then, the headscarf ban has remained a hot topic for Turkey. State offices do not hire headscarf-wearing women. Covered women are also denied employment in most private companies despite the lack of a law that prohibits the use of the headscarf in private business. They are not elected to Parliament, either.
Taraf daily columnist Alper Görmüş said Turkey has a stronger civilian authority today to challenge attempts to endanger its existence, but the threat of a new military takeover is always alive. For him, roughly 30 percent of the people in Turkey are pro coup, which means a significant portion of the Turkish population would support the military if it staged a coup.
“These are people who would applaud a coup due to their ‘personal concerns.’ It is not easy to fight this mindset. I am not of the opinion that Turkey will not witness a coup again. For me, there is always the risk of a coup in Turkey. The Feb. 28 process did not last a thousand years, but its impacts are still vivid,” Görmüş added.
Once talking about the impact of Feb. 28 on society, now-retired Chief of General Staff Gen. Hüseyin Kıvrıkoğlu had said, “The Feb. 28 process will last a thousand years.”
Remembering Feb. 28
In early 1997, uneasy with the existence of a conservative party -- the Welfare Party (RP) -- in government, the General Staff sought ways to do away with the government. The MGK made several decisions during a meeting on Feb. 28 and presented them to then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the RP, for approval. Erbakan was forced to sign the decisions, and he subsequently resigned. The coup introduced a series of harsh restrictions on religious life, with an unofficial but widely practiced ban on the use of the Islamic headscarf. The military was purged of members with suspected ties to religious groups. In addition, a number of newspapers were closed down after the coup based on an MGK decision that required the monitoring of press organs. None of the military figures who had a hand in overthrowing the RP government have, however, stood trial.