On April 18 Tulay Tugcu, the former head of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, issued a statement refuting allegations that the Turkish military had pressured the court by threatening to stage a coup unless it annulled the results of the parliamentary vote to appoint the country’s next president in spring 2007.
On April 27, 2007, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) posted a statement on its website implicitly threatening to topple the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) if it pushed ahead with its attempts to appoint the then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the presidency. At the time, the president was chosen by parliament in successive rounds of voting. The presidential election was boycotted by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). On May 1, 2007, the Constitutional Court ruled that for any presidential election to be valid, a quorum of two-thirds of the 550 members of parliament had to participate in the vote. The AKP had only 352 seats. On May 2, 2007, it called an early general election.
The Constitutional Court’s decision lacked an obvious basis in Turkish law. However, although it was undoubtedly not its intent, the ruling ultimately strengthened the AKP. In the July 22, 2007, election the AKP was returned to power with 46.6 percent of the popular vote, up from 34.3 percent at the previous election in November 2002. Faced with such an unequivocal demonstration of public support for the AKP, the TGS remained silent when the party finally appointed Gul to the presidency in August 2007.
Emboldened by its failure to prevent Gul from becoming president, opponents of the military on both the liberal left and Islamist right subsequently stepped up their attacks on the TGS. However, in recent months in particular, conspiracy theorists have begun to blame the TGS for almost every negative development in Turkey.
In January 2008 the members of a clandestine ultranationalist gang called Ergenekon, which included some retired military personnel, were arrested on suspicion of plotting to destabilize the country in the hope of provoking a military coup (see Terrorism Focus, January 29). In the months that have followed, barely a week has gone by without stories appearing in the Turkish media claiming that Ergenekon was controlled by elements in the TGS and was responsible for an improbably wide range of bombings and political assassinations–even that it was cooperating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Significantly, the stories have all been attributed to unnamed sources and have first appeared in newspapers sympathetic to the AKP. In truth, Ergenekon appears to have been a very small and poorly equipped organization, with an armory that consisted primarily of a crate of hand grenades. While the only document related to the organization which has so far appeared in the public domain dates from 1999 and makes it clear that, rather than being created and controlled by the TGS, Ergenekon was trying to infiltrate it (Radikal, April 5).
Similar creativity has been applied to a diary allegedly belonging to retired Admiral Ozden Ornek, who served as commander of the Turkish Navy from 2003 to 2005. Extracts from the diary, which were published in the weekly news magazine Nokta in spring 2007, appeared to chronicle Ornek’s frustration at his failure to persuade his colleagues to remove the newly-elected AKP from power. Nokta was swiftly closed down and its editor Ahmet Alper Gormus taken to court on charges of slander and libel against Ornek. Gormus was finally acquitted on April 11 but Nokta remains closed (NTV, April 11). The diary is now frequently cited by AKP sympathizers as proof that the TGS was plotting a coup during the AKP’s first term in power (Sabah, April 20). However, the content of the diary makes it clear that the writer’s main complaint was precisely that the TGS was not planning to stage a coup.
On April 8 Yasemin Congar, a liberal columnist with the daily Taraf, wrote an article speculating that the TGS had threatened the Constitutional Court with a coup unless it blocked the AKP’s attempts to appoint Gul to the presidency (Taraf, April 8). When no denials were forthcoming, other journalists followed Congar’s lead, with many arguing that the silence was itself proof that the allegations were true. Tugcu, who was head of the court at the time, finally responded on April 18. “No soldier would dare tell the court what to do,” she said (Radikal, Hurriyet, NTV, April 19).
Admiral Yener Karahanoglu, who served as navy commander from 2005 to 2007 and had been named by several journalists as conveying the warning to Tugcu, was similarly exasperated. “Apart from shaking her hand or exchanging pleasantries at official functions, I’ve never spoke to her. Even then it wasn’t more than three times,” he said (Radikal, April 19).
Indeed, anyone who follows the Turkish judiciary is aware that it has never needed to be ordered or threatened in order to try to protect its hard-line interpretation of secularism.
However, neither Tugcu’s nor Karahanoglu’s denials are likely to change the perception amongs many Turkish liberals and AKP supporters that the allegations against the TGS are true. More insidiously, the constant stream of manifestly inaccurate conspiracy theories will also make denials much easier when, as occasionally happens in Turkey, one of them happens to contain more than a grain of truth.