ANKARA — The exposure of the plan hatched by senior military officials — called “Operation Sledgehammer” — to destabilize Turkey’s government, and the subsequent arrest of high-ranking officers, demonstrates the growing strength of Turkey’s democracy. Moreover, prosecutors’ efforts to uncover the truth are not a campaign to discredit the Turkish Army, as some allege; nor has the exposure of “Sledgehammer” led to an emerging showdown between “secularists” and “Islamists.”

Turkish society and politics are too complicated to be reduced to such simplistic formulas.

Nevertheless, this is a very serious moment for Turkey, because it may mark the country’s transit from decades of military tutelage of its civilian politicians — and thus complete its transition to full-fledged democracy.

“Sledgehammer” is, sad to say, yet another alleged coup plot in a series of attempts to topple the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was first elected in 2002. According to the Turkish constitution, it is illegal for any agency, even the military, to try to overthrow a democratically elected government. Had such a coup attempt taken place, much less succeeded, it also would have put an end to Turkey’s aspirations to become a full member of the European Union.

Indeed, the EU’s progress reports on Turkey have consistently raised the issue of the military’s disproportionate power in Turkish politics, and the fact that some officers do not seem to accept that they are subject to civilian control. The three military coups Turkey endured in 1960, 1971, and 1980 brought neither prosperity nor stability to the country. The “soft coup” of 1997, whereby a democratically elected government was forced by the military to resign, left deep scars in Turkish society. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Turks respect the army only when it stays within its barracks.

According to the evidence gathered by Turkish prosecutors, four coup attempts have been made since the AKP came to power. On April 27, 2007, the Turkish Armed Forces issued a statement opposing the presidential candidacy of Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister at the time, warning that if Gul was elected, Turkey would descend into chaos. But this effort at intimidation failed, and Gul won.

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the top commander of the Turkish Armed Forces back then, recently admitted that he himself wrote the April 27 memorandum. On March 14, 2008, the chief public prosecutor opened an investigation aimed at shutting down the AKP on the grounds that it was intent on violating the constitutional ban on promoting religion. But the case was motivated almost exclusively by political and ideological considerations, with evidence gathered from newspaper clips and antigovernment Op-Eds.

“Sledgehammer” is but the most recent coup plot to be uncovered, going back to 2003. According to the Turkish daily newspaper Taraf, to which the plot was leaked, a 5,000-page plan was drafted to create chaos in Turkey by burning mosques, downing Greek military aircraft and carrying out mass arrests of those who opposed the military. The intent was to prepare the ground for a military takeover.

Some critics dismiss this planning as just “war games,” not to be taken seriously. The same thing was said by top military officials about another plot, called “The Action Plan against Religious Fundamentalism,” drafted by Col. Dursun Cicek. On June 26, 2009, Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug called the Action Plan “just a piece of paper.” Eight months later, a military committee investigating the case concluded that the plan was, indeed, drafted to damage and discredit the AKP and government.

If none of the above constitutes a breach of democratic principles, one wonders what would. No democratic country would allow such interventions by its military, whatever the circumstances.

Yet critics still insist on getting the root cause of these efforts wrong. They try to depict this as a showdown between the “Islamist AKP” and the country’s democracy-loving secularists.

Daniel Pipes, an American polemicist, has gone so far as almost to endorse the military coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, arguing that “on four occasions between 1960 and 1997, the military intervened to repair a political process gone awry.”

One wonders if Pipes would accept the US military taking over the American government if it should ever unilaterally conclude that American politics had gone awry.

The fact that these plots have been uncovered is a clear sign of the maturation of Turkish democracy. The legal investigations now under way do not mark a showdown between Islamists and secularists, nor are they a campaign to discredit Turkey’s generals. They are part of a process of normalization, of the establishment of absolute civilian control of the military, and confirmation of the principle that no one is above the law.

Ibrahim Kalin is chief policy adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. © 2010 Project Syndicate

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