The closure case against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will soon be concluded. After the presentation of oral arguments to the Constitutional Court last week, Osman Paksut, deputy chairman of the court, said that the verdict on the case might be issued within four to five weeks (Turkish Press, July 4). Speaking at a reception at the American Embassy in Ankara, Paksut disparaged the EU’s involvement in the closure case, particularly recent remarks by officials that the EU membership negotiations might be suspended should the court shut down the AKP. Having noted that the court’s earlier case squashing parliament’s amendments about the headscarf ban at universities had no direct bearing on the closure case and no member of the court had made his decision yet, Paksut claimed that whatever the decision of the court might be, it would be a disaster for Turkish politics (CNN Turk, July 5).
This statement is only one indication of how the future of Turkish politics may be decided in the courts. The fate of the closure case, hence Turkish politics, is increasingly tied to another case dominating Turkey’s agenda: the Ergenekon investigation (EDM, July 1). The timing of the key events in both cases and the response and positioning of political actors give the impression that the two cases set the battleground for a political struggle in Turkey. What is a perfectly legal case for one side is a political maneuver for the other.
Ergenekon, an umbrella organization of clandestine groups that were seeking to regroup and reassert a neo-nationalist political program, first came to the attention of the Turkish public when the police seized a weapons cache in Istanbul in June 2007. Earlier raids on the organization led to the detention of some shadowy figures, gangsters, and ex-criminals, but subsequent arrests this year have altered the course of the investigation and its meaning for Turkish politics.
Various unidentified political assassinations in recent history, such as the murder of Hrant Dink and an attack on the Council of State, have been linked to Ergenekon. More importantly, the focus has also shifted toward its political goals: troubled by a perceived betrayal of national interests by the government, members of the group organized to overthrow the government, if necessary through a military coup. The controversial killings, seen in this light, were claimed to have been carried out as part of a plan to destabilize the country through a series of manipulative attacks, setting the stage for a military takeover (Today’s Zaman, January 26).
To establish a credible case for this charge before the courts, the prosecutors have to connect the perpetrators to “actual plotters” in the military. This seems to be the Achilles’ heel of the entire case: proving Ergenekon’s intent and its capability to overthrow the government requires the conviction of a good many shadowy figures; but as the prosecution pursues influential people, it gets engulfed in the muddy waters of Turkish politics. Civilian investigations into past coups and alleged coup attempts, let alone bringing those involved to trial, is a venture into uncharted territory for Turkish politics.
The prosecution took major steps in this direction with the string of arrests in January, which led to the detention of, among others, retired Major General Veli Kucuk (Turkish Press, January 24). Following the next two major waves of police raids, on March 21 and July 1, as many as 54 people are now in detention, including businessmen, journalists, politicians and artists. Several of the detainees are retired military officers, a new force in Turkish politics, who organized around Kemalist and neo-nationalist associations.
The crucial question has been whether Ergenekon had links to active duty military personnel and who “the number one” person was. Most experts believe that although individuals within the military might provide sporadic logistical and intelligence support to Ergenekon-related organizations, it is difficult to talk about institutional support (see interview with Samil Tayyar, Referans, April 25). After the recent string of arrests, the prosecution is said to have finally caught some of the “big fish” (Radikal, July 2). The apparently acquiescent and cooperative attitude of military top brass with the police investigation into Ergenekon, moreover, might be taken as an indication that the military is distancing itself from these clandestine activities by expressing support for the investigation.
These recent developments, nonetheless, come against the backdrop of a series of reports run by the liberal-left Taraf daily, which revealed a plan prepared by the military in 2007 to mobilize opposition against the current government (Taraf, June 20). These developments also revived earlier discussions about some generals’ plans to topple the AKP government in 2004. The “coup diaries” uncovered by the newsweekly Nokta in March 2007 could not be investigated fully at the time. With several people involved in these plots now arrested, the question of whether groups within the military pursued coup ambitions is back on the agenda. The answer might come years later at the end of a long trial. The prosecutors, however, have yet to submit their indictment for Ergenekon, so that a trial could start. The prosecutors were close to finalizing a 2,500-page indictment last week, but in light of the recent arrests they postponed the indictment again (Turkish Press, July 5). The prosecution’s repeated delaying of the indictment and keeping scores of influential figures in jail, coupled with the manner in which the police raids were carried out, led the opposition to accuse the AKP of using Ergenekon to silence opponents and take revenge for the closure case (Deniz Baykal on NTV, July 4).
Prosecutor Zekeriya Oz assumed a Herculean task by deciding to expand the scope of the Ergenekon investigation. In this already politicized case, the prosecution will have to prove that what is on trial is not the neo-nationalist political program opposing the AKP but a group that poses an imminent threat to legal order. Hence, the Ergenekon investigation ironically coalesces with the closure case in an odd way. If the prosecution cannot furnish a strong case, it will be charged with seeking to prosecute advocates of an idea rather than the wrongdoings of a terrorist organization, paralleling the charges that the Constitutional Court closes political parties for harboring ideas without looking into hard evidence.
It may take years before the Turkish courts decide whether Ergenekon is “Turkey’s Gladio” or an amateur shadowy organization. In any case, the prosecutor Oz has already put the entire political system into flux. Recent developments have set Turkish politics into a new collision course between the government and opposition, as well as leaving deep divisions within the Turkish media. While the Ergenekon trial is seen as a requirement for further democratization by some, others view it as a campaign to defame the military, deepening divisions already created by the closure case.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the recent developments, a group of deputies signed a motion by socialist deputy Ufuk Uras, calling on parliament to make a thorough investigation of past coups as well as the threat of pending coups. Although deputies from major parties refrained from supporting the motion, it gathered enough votes to be submitted to parliament this week (Taraf, July 4; Turkish Daily News, July 5). If parliament decides to take on this probe, it may open another chapter in the history of Turkish democracy.