THE political stability given to Turkey by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has not served to lessen the intensity of the country’s ideological polarisation.
The AKP can justly claim credit for some successes: it has given the country 12 years of stable single-party government; its economic policies have turned Turkey into the world’s 17th and Europe’s sixth biggest economy, and it has tamed the military the way earlier Islamists led by Necmettin Erbekan had failed to.
In what was an intelligent move, Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly pledged loyalty to secularism and thus removed the raison d’être for the military to seize power when he ousted his mentor Erbekan to grab party leadership.
What the reaction in the army was when the AKP won the election the first time in 2002 is now coming to light as the Ergenekon trial proceeds. On Aug 2, Hilmi Ozkok, a former chief of the general staff, told a court trying hundreds of people — 40 serving generals among them — that the army wanted to send to the AKP government a veiled coup warning in the form of a ‘memorandum’. (The Turkish word ‘muhtira’ can also be translated as ‘ultimatum’.)
Hilmi found himself vulnerable. The general preceding him as chief of the general staff had opposed his nomination as army chief because he thought Hilmi would not be able to resist fundamentalism. When he finally became CGS, Hilmi sensed unpopularity when he discouraged fellow officers from thinking in terms of a coup. But he was so scared — he told the court — that he brought food from home because he feared poisoning.
Much before Hilmi stunned the nation, the army as far back as 2007 staged what came to be known as the ‘e-coup’ when it warned the government on its website against Abdullah Gul’s appointment as president.
The situation since then has improved, with Erdogan having turned the powerful, army-led National Security Council into a consultative body headed by a civilian. But this governmental stability is not reflected in society, because even the diluted secularism of the AKP’s philosophy is not acceptable to large segments of Turkish society.
This is a challenge for the AKP, not for the secular elements, because it is his espousal of the apparently incompatible strains in his philosophy that distinguishes Erdogan from Erbekan.
Two minor events need to be noted here. In a south-eastern town, a crowd attacked an Alevi home because its inmates had requested the neighbourhood drummer not to wake them up for sehri because they were going on a holiday the next day. The drummer told others, and a crowd gathered and pelted the home with stones, burnt its stable and shouted, “No Alevi and no Kurds in our town”.
Also, last month, a security guard shouted at a woman and stopped her from boarding a ferry because she was carrying four sealed bottles of wine. It was Ramazan. The ferry firm later apologised. But the issue — relevant to Pakistan — was that the guard defied institutional discipline and acted on his own. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, the generals did not invite Erdogan to a national day reception last year.
Reducing the intensity of this social polarisation by democratic means is Erdogan’s main challenge. The trial of Kenan Evren and others responsible for the 1980 coup has been criticised by Erdogan himself. This revanchism could jeopardise Turkey’s otherwise commendable move towards democratic consolidation.
The writer is a member of staff.