The long-awaited verdicts in the so-called Ergenekon case against alleged coup plotters in Turkey have finally been handed down. Those convicted of attempting to overthrow the elected government have been given heavy sentences. According to theory Turkey is now free of the threat of yet another military coup and can move happily to the sunny uplands of real democracy. If only.
Zealous prosecutors quickly expanded what began with the discovery of an arms cache in an Istanbul suburb more than five years ago into a broad hunt for any and all potential plotters against the government. The search for plotters went into all realms of Turkish life and quickly assumed the name Ergenekon – a valley in Central Asia where ancient Turks sought refuge and were guided by the legendary grey wolf who became an important figure in Turkish nationalist mythology. The hunt even went into the hitherto untouchable realm of the army general staff. Indeed one of those sentenced to life imprisonment is the former chief of the general staff.
The net gathered hundreds of suspects who were thrown into jail long before any trial. During the process there were serious questions about prosecutorial misconduct, tainted evidence, and gross procedural errors. Given the tight veil of secrecy that shrouded much of the proceedings the truth of those allegations may never come out until the lengthy appeals process that most assuredly will wind up in a European court of appeals.
Furthermore, as Emma Sinclair-Webb notes in an excellent essay in The International Herald Tribune, the trial did nothing to shed light on the shadowy para-military groups in Turkey that for years have been accused of ruthlessly hunting, torturing and murdering alleged enemies of the State.
The initial effect of the verdicts has been to deepen the already deep social and political divisions in Turkey. Those protesting the verdicts are convinced they are nothing more than vicious revenge and pay back by Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government against the heavy-handed secular pro-Ataturk military/bureaucratic elite that ran the country for decades. Do unto others what they did unto you. Others, equally vociferous if seldom accurate, maintain the verdicts were a case of simple justice – a message that what happened in Egypt will never again happen in Turkey.
Both views miss the point. Even in the hard-to-accept case that all the evidence was valid and the prosecutors didn’t trample over the defendants’ rights nothing fundamental has changed in the relationship of the people vs. The State – the almighty, the sacred Devlet. The only thing that has changed is who wields the Iron Fist. It is hard to say the country has progressed very far along the road of democracy when an illiberal, authoritarian, paranoid military-backed regime is replaced by an illiberal, authoritarian, paranoid Islamic-oriented government that uses the ballot box as effectively as the military uses tanks to silence opponents.
It is the height of irony to hear Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan bellow about the alleged death of democracy in Egypt when he himself is doing his very best to squash whatever seeds of real democracy are trying to grow in Turkey. The louder he squawks the more obvious it becomes how little he understands that real democracy involves empowering the individual against the state. Since the wide scale protests in May he has done everything in his power to stifle individual expression and dissent from his unique vision of the national will. Protestors have been beaten and arrested. Those who beat up and even murdered protestors have yet to be found. Police who fired tear gas and chemical-laced water were praised for their ‘brave’ duty. Dozens of journalists who dared to criticize the government’s over-reaction have been fired by owners afraid of a government backlash on their other business interests. Social media not under the government’s direct control have been heavily criticized.
Corporations deemed insufficiently pro-government have been targeted for abusive tax investigations. Professional organizations who dare to question the government’s plans are stripped of their official consulting role. In an incredible example of cutting off your nose to spite your face Erdoğan has ordered that all student loans should be cancelled for anyone who participates or supports the demonstrations. Exactly who is going to propel the Turkish economy upward if not these students who can no longer afford to learn anything??
His nervousness about dissent in any form has also descended to sport. The Beşiktaş football club now wants anyone who buys a ticket to sign a pledge not to engage in or instigate any chanting that might have political overtones. The government must be terrified of a repeat of the scenes during the protests when football supporters from all the major clubs joined the protestors.
The foolishness doesn’t stop there. The State’s intrusion into private lives now includes all women. The prime minister recently re-iterated his call that it is every woman’s duty to have three children.
The basic problem the prime minister has is that a very large part of the young Turkish population is now well educated, well travelled, and well aware of how real democracies operate. They are no longer willing to sit idly and watch their rights trampled. In the long run they will succeed in adjusting the balance of power between the individual and the State. The sooner the prime minister accepts this fact the smoother the transition will be.