Erdogan Avoids Confrontation with the Military over Alleged Plot

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 118

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) with Chief of the General Staff General Ilker Basbug

Since the publication of a document, allegedly prepared by Colonel, Dursun Cicek, outlining a plan to undermine the governing AKP and the Gulen movement last week, Turkish domestic politics has focused on the future of civil-military relations (EDM, June 15). Nonetheless, fears over a split between the government and the military did not transpire, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has avoided such a dangerous confrontation. Instead of pursuing punitive action against the military authorities, Erdogan has demonstrated restraint and instead referred the matter to the courts.

On June 15, the chief military prosecutor said that the allegations were being investigated. Based on a preliminary study of evidence, the prosecutor reached an opinion that the document was not prepared by any unit within the headquarters of the General Staff. If the authenticity of the document could be established, all personnel involved will be brought to justice, the statement added (Anadolu Ajansi, June 16).

The office of the General Staff also released a press statement that criticized "the written and verbal comments and declarations targeting the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), both openly and implicitly, on the assumption that the allegations are true." It called on everyone to refrain from reaching any premature conclusion on the allegations before the legal inquiry has reached its judgment (, June 15).

Pro-government and pro-Gulen media outlets labeled the action plan as a blatant attempt by the military to interfere with the jurisdiction of civil politics. They did not find the military authorities’ claims about the authenticity of the document credible, and questioned how the prosecutor might have formed an "opinion" on a document without having seen it. More importantly, in their view, despite the steps taken toward democratization, the existence of such a plan within the military was a grave development. They maintained that unless the government acts decisively against this threat, its democratization efforts will be damaged. They believe, if necessary, the government should ask for the resignation of the either the chief of the General Staff or his deputy who oversee the department that allegedly prepared the report (Yeni Safak, Zaman, June 16).

The Chief of the General Staff General Ilker Basbug gave an interview to Hurriyet in which he responded to the growing criticism of the Turkish military. He reiterated that the military prosecutor was working on the case and his headquarters’ additional investigation had revealed that there was no concrete evidence linking the military to the document. When asked "was such an order [for the preparation of the document] issued by the military command?" Basbug responded "I even consider this question an insult. Such an order was never given." He said he will take all measures necessary, if the alleged source of the document is proven, but added that he opposed referring the case to the civil courts (Hurriyet, June 16).

In this context, curiously the AKP’s reaction was expected. When the allegations first emerged, Erdogan promised to defend democracy and take any necessary legal action. On June 16, he met Basbug to discuss these developments. Recently, both leaders had agreed to form a new consultation mechanism and hold weekly meetings every Thursday (Radikal, January 22). No statement was issued following this meeting, but during his address to the AKP’s parliamentary group later the same day, Erdogan insisted that the state institutions had acted in close coordination. He praised the handling of the case by the General Staff, saying that it acted "in a responsible and sensitive manner." He called on the military and civil courts to conclude their investigations promptly (Anadolu Ajansi, June 16).

The AKP filed a criminal complaint against the plan with the Ankara Public Prosecutor’s Office. The lawsuit defined those involved in alleged plots against the AKP and the government, as engaging in illegal activities. The AKP described such activities as unacceptable, and requested an immediate investigation (Cihan, June 16).

The AKP’s lawsuit appears to be based on the assumption that the document is genuine, and consequently the discussions have focused on the forensic investigation into its authenticity. However, reports in the Turkish media demonstrate how deeply politically divisive the issue has become. Newspaper headlines on June 17 illustrated the extent of these divisions. Star, which is supportive of the government, insisted that the document was uncovered as part of the Ergenekon investigation and was true, while Haberturk, which is more critical of the government, questioned its authenticity.

The Gendarmerie criminal investigation unit has allegedly completed its examination of the document, which hinges on whether the signature belongs to Colonel Cicek. Although the forensic report was not released, newspapers speculate over its possible content. Whereas Haberturk claimed that it is "99 percent certain" that the document was forged, Yeni Safak and Star maintained that according to a preliminary investigation there is "90 percent certainty" that the signature belonged to the Turkish colonel. Other papers alleged that he might have used different signatures, which could further complicate the investigation (Sabah, Aksam, June 19).

The Zaman daily, close to the Gulen movement, questions this narrow focus on the authenticity of the document, and maintains that it cannot address public concern surrounding the accusations. Zaman was especially critical of efforts to transfer the investigation to the military courts. Citing similar instances in the past, Zaman claims that it might be used to promote a military cover up. It called for a more comprehensive parliamentary investigation into the allegations (Zaman, June 19).

Nonetheless, Erdogan has refused to turn this case into an open confrontation with the military, and he remains committed to avoiding such conflict. Turkish domestic politics is increasingly conducted around controversial legal cases. Yet, in a political system as divided as Turkey’s, trust in the court system is lacking -and far from clarifying the allegations, the court might perpetuate existing divisions.