A momentous trial
Turkey has the second largest armed forces in Nato and they are a widely respected player in the country’s political and social life, drawing on their deep historical experience of helping to hold the state together. So much has this been the case that on three occasions since 1960 the military organised coups against governments they believed threatened that unity and in two more recent cases conspired to remove elected Islamist-based parties from office. Last week’s conclusion of the five-year Ergenekon trial against some 275 alleged army-led coup conspirators with 19 life sentences was therefore a momentous event.
Seen against the historical record of army involvement in politics there is no doubting the trial’s significance for Turkey’s future. For decades after it emerged from the Ottoman empire in the 1920s the country was dominated by a nationalist elite determined to modernise and unify its multicultural and diverse peoples into a single state. Their firm control of political, bureaucratic, judicial and military structures led them to believe they owned the state. This ideology carried over into successive dirty tricks campaigns, assassinations and provocations from within the security establishment against such enemies – including the reformist conservative Islamist party now in its third term which emerged in the 1990s despite such lethal opposition.
That political context helps explain the passion and partisanship surrounding the Ergenekon trial which have continued after last week’s verdicts. Perhaps the most important achievement of the governing AKP party led by Recip Tayyip Erdogan has been to demilitarise Turkish politics. This trial outcome conclusively caps that achievement, making it far more difficult for any such coup attempt to be repeated. But the process leading to this result is tainted by mindsets arising from its very success – an arrogance in yielding power and a creeping authoritarianism intolerant of criticism. Turkey needs to learn and absorb these lessons before its democracy can fully mature.