When the newsflash hit the screens that the top command had issued a memo against the elected government of Turkey, it was late at night on April 27, 2007. I was, at that moment in a live TV chat with columnists Mehmet Altan and Ayşe Önal about the issue of political ethics.
We were all stunned, perplexed. The wording of the text left no doubt about who the “targets” were: primarily, it was Abdullah Gül, then the foreign minister, and the entire Cabinet. The military had -- as usual -- rattled its sword, and nobody had any idea about what sort of consequences it would have on the election of the president.
I called Ankara immediately, which seemed to be in profound confusion, and a colleague of mine in Washington, D.C. She had not heard about the development and swiftly proceeded to ask her high placed sources at the State Department and the Pentagon. In about 10 minutes, she was back on the line. Nobody had heard in the American capital that the military was “on the move” again. She quoted an unnamed source as saying: “Damn, they always choose Fridays for such things!”
As we were trying to make sense of it all in our TV chat, the news had hit the residence of the Foreign Ministry. In his new book, “Turkey and Its Military Problem,” veteran colleague Hasan Cemal takes us all on a walk through what happened behind closed doors there. At that late hour Gül was surfing the Internet, while his wife, Hayrünnisa Gül, was watching a nostalgic TV series, with a lot of political undertones. The episode also contained a depiction of Adnan Menderes and his two ministers being hanged in 1961, after a military coup.
In tears, Madame Gül joined her husband, who by then had seen the newsflashes of the military memo, in part humiliating and targeting him. “Oh my God!” she sighed. “Will we once again go through all the things in the TV series? Will history repeat itself again?” With his wife crying and in shock, Gül walked upstairs, got dressed and came back. He told his wife to be ready for anything, including arrest, even death. He called a dear friend and told him, “If something happens to me, please protect my family.”
The general mood amongst the leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was “not to run away from the scene like Süleyman Demirel, or ‘shake’ like Necmettin Erbakan. There would be resistance, as much as possible. One would not leave quietly.”
Hasan Cemal’s book reveals, powerfully, how close Turkey was to an overthrow that day. Parts of the right-wing opposition were “frightened” enough not to join a crucial first round of elections, making it impossible for Gül to be elected. The CHP would then take the vote to the Constitutional Court for the annulment of the entire process.
But something very unusual happened the day after. The government issued a toughly worded statement, rejecting the content of the memo, and declared a firm commitment to the democratic process.
Turkey had entered a new era, challenging the decades-long interventionist, arrogant and at times violent policies of the country’s democracy-skeptic “big brother” -- the military.
April 27 had marked a critical breakthrough in the chronically problematic civilian–military relations, but it had not simply popped up as a result of a disagreement over the presidential election. It was the result of seemingly endless, successive coup plotting and institutional harassment against the single majority party.
Cemal argues that the General Staff, which had engineered a “soft coup” in 1997 resulting in the Çiller-Erbakan coalition dissolving under severe threats, was mainly discontented that the project was not “fully completed” at that time. So when the AK Party came to power with over 34 percent of the vote in November 2002, some powerful four-star generals found themselves face-to-face with some political figures whom they had tried to chase away from politics. Without doubt, the higher ranks of the military felt as if they had been defeated.
To be able to lucidly portray the period from November 2002 onwards, Cemal constructed the main parts of the book by juxtaposing two key documents whose authenticity has been proven by court judges as evidence. It is with amazement that the reader realizes how the diaries written by Özden Örnek, an ex-navy commander, and the diaries by Mustafa Balbay, a journalist accused of being an accomplice to the coup plotting, overlap so precisely.
The book concludes with various points during this time span: a) Turkey proceeded into the end of this decade under the constant threat of a military-generated disruption of politics; b) despite the severe mistrust of and contempt for the AK Party government, some key generals, although they kept plotting one coup after another, could never establish a full consensus amongst themselves, but, like a relay race, they kept on going; c) a majority of the commanders outside Ankara were reluctant about an intervention; d) a critical number of the undemocratic civilian elite from academia, business and the media were flocking around the military as collaborators and provocateurs; e) the most crucial figure who defined the democratic course was Hilmi Özkök, the then-top commander, who managed to stand firm on legalistic grounds.