The conviction by Turkish courts of 275 military officers, politicians, academics, and journalists, after a five-year trial on terrorism charges, has exposed fundamental differences over the very nature of the Turkish state; it has also deepened the confrontation between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) and many other groupings in Turkish life. Among those sentenced to life are Ilker Basbug, chief of military staff until 2010, 16 other military officers, and Tuncay Özkan, a journalist. Another journalist, Mustafa Balbay, who is one of three MPs convicted, was sentenced to 34 years. 21 defendants were acquitted. The trial resulted from the 2007 discovery of 27 grenades in an Istanbul house owned by a military officer, with the prosecution claiming that a body called Ergenekon, after a mythical Turkish valley, was conspiring to overthrow the Turkish state. All the verdicts are to be appealed, but the conspiracy claim is not the first; in 2012, 300 officers were convicted in a separate trial known as the “Sledgehammer” case, which involved charges of conspiracy to bring down the government in 2003. Those convictions are also under appeal.
Turkey has long-standing tensions between civilian politicians and the military, which carried out coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980, and in 1997 forced a moderate Islamist government to resign. While the military sees itself as preserving Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular legacy, Mr. Erdogan sees a major problem in what Turkish observers call the “deep state”, an unofficial but powerful network of senior civil servants, the upper military, and other officials. The idea of a “deep state” in which high officials are hostile to certain parties is not confined to Turkey, and as recently as the 1990s, eminent political scientists described a similar phenomenon in British politics. But then neither is it solely a Turkish issue that many major media bodies are owned by conglomerates whose owners may hesitate to endanger their other businesses by being too critical of the government. Mr. Erdogan, in response, points out that in 2011 his AKP won its third successive election with a 50 per cent share of an 83 per cent turnout. Nevertheless, the harsh Ergenekon sentences have evoked fears of executive pressure on the judiciary and have diminished public support for Mr. Erdogan’s attempts to curb the military. Secondly, the fact that the bulk of AKP support is in socially conservative rural areas and favours an Islamist agenda gives the military political leverage. To square that circle, the Prime Minister will need to respect the secular, liberal ethos of modern Turkey, even while he tackles the “deep state.”
* This editorial has been corrected for a factual error.