When a Turkish court August 5 handed down sentences against 275 people in the so-called “Ergenekon” case, including a life sentence in prison for a former military chief of staff, it brought to a close a disquieting five-year chapter in the country’s political history. Official manipulation of the courts as a means to suppress dissent is by no means unique to Turkey. But the Ergenekon case – in addition to raising serious questions about illegal evidence-gathering and other abuses of the legal system – has been a particularly insidious example of how a government can deploy security fears to take out a far wider array of its political opponents.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won control of the Turkish government a decade ago, many liberals in the country welcomed the party’s efforts to curb the power of the army. And given modern Turkey’s history of military coups, since its founding, allegations that a shadowy network of secular but undemocratic groups was organizing to topple the new Islamist-rooted government could not be dismissed out of hand. When the government sought to tie the 2007 discovery of a weapons arsenal in an Istanbul district to such groups, it raised only a few eyebrows.
However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government did more than that; as the probe launched in 2008 progressed, authorities managed to lump together the alleged members of the Ergenekon network with a wider range of political dissidents. This week’s verdict, coming a year after the convictions of former military leaders in the purported “Sledgehammer” coup plot, is the latest chapter in what has become an AKP political cleansing operation. Erdoğan’s “packaging strategy” in the Ergenekon case sought to paint commentators and activists, anyone who might have communicated with the alleged coup plotters in the course of their day-to-day work, with the same brush. The strategy is clever; those who question the tactics face accusations of attempting to whitewash possible plans to overthrow the Turkish government. It also to an extent mirrors the AKP’s strategy in policymaking, which has blended seeming steps toward protecting Turkey’s democracy (such as the nascent peace talks with the country’s separatist Kurds) with a crackdown on dissident thought that has left Turkey, among other shameful achievements, with one of the highest numbers of jailed journalists of any country in the world.
The AKP government’s authoritarian edge had already been on display to the world in recent months in its heavy-handed response to the Gezi Park protest movement. Erdoğan’s response to the demonstrations has been telling – alternately threatening to mobilize his own political supporters, declaring the protests to be driven by a foreign plot, and ordering financial investigations of businesses thought to support them. Meanwhile, Turks’ distrust in their country’s institutions, including the court system and a news media now mostly cowed by the government, is plummeting as fewer and fewer people believe that any of them are truly independent from Erdogan’s whims. This week’s verdict only reinforces these beliefs.
True believers in Turkish democracy have no wish to see a return to the days when the armed forces repeatedly “came out of the barracks.” But now they fear that military hegemony over their country has simply been replaced by AKP hegemony. The real threat to Turkey is not coming out of the shadows – it is already in plain sight.
*Cenk Sidar is the managing director of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic advisory and research firm. [email protected] @cenksidar