The recent arrest of Turkey’s former chief of staff İlker Başbuğ, as part of an inquiry into alleged coup plots, prompted shockwaves in Turkish political circles. The investigation into the shadowy Ergenekon network has been rumbling on for years, claiming more and more high-profile victims in the military, the media and the academic world – but arresting the man who ran the military until 2010 is a remarkable new development.
But that isn't the end of it: the leader of the opposition CHP Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is now under investigation for publicly slamming the government's use of the judiciary. With prosecutors calling for his parliamentary immunity to be lifted, is the Ergenekon investigation getting out of control?
First, the general. Başbuğ's arrest gives new ammunition to both sides – those who argue that the arrest show just how serious the plot to topple the democratically elected government really was, and those who believe that Ergenekon is at most a minor threat and, at worst, really a plot by the ruling AKP to crush the Kemalist establishment and cement its own Islamist power.
Başbuğ’s arrest was part of a sub-strand of Ergenekon, the Internet Memorandum case, which purportedly involved the establishment of 42 websites to spread propaganda against the AKP and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The general himself seemed bewildered by the arrest. “How could it be possible that I plotted against the government which appointed me? If they knew that I was involved in such a plot, why did they keep me in the post?” he asked on his way to detention in Istanbul.
Indeed. He was appointed in 2008 - when the Ergenekon investigation was underway - and had a close relationship with the AKP and Prime Minister Erdoğan. If he was genuinely involved in a plot to overthrow the government, what does this say about Erdoğan’s judgment?
In any case, the neutralisation of Başbuğ demonstrates the extent which the government – in this as in most of the Ergenekon cases, the judiciary toes the government line – is determined to crush the Kemalist establishment. The former chief of staff’s arrest is the culmination of a process which has seen dozens of his former subordinates detained, often without trial and without a clear case being made against them.
Was his arrest justified? Maybe so. Bülent Keneş, editor of the pro-government Zaman, makes a strong argument that the military under Başbuğ demonstrated all the tendencies which its coup-prone predecessors had: overt politicisation, disregard for democratic institutions, and an iron determination to protect its privileged position at the heart of the state (see Mehmet Ali Birand for the opposite take - that the general marked a break with his predecessors and largely accepted civilian control).
But every new Ergenekon arrest seems less like a judicial case and more like another step in a campaign to wipe out the Kemalist, nationalist and usually unaccountable old guard. The government seems willing to undermine democracy and the rule of law in pursuit of a military clique it accuses of doing just that.
In this light the investigation into Kılıçdaroğlu seems to be proof that the Ergenekon campaign is spiralling out of control. His comments were inflammatory, to be sure - he likened a prison holding Ergenekon suspects to a 'concentration camp' - but for prosecutors to begin investigating him (for influencing a fair trial, ironically) smacks of repressing free speech. The CHP has hit out at the probe, saying that the courts were being politically directed, and has dared the government to remove the immunity of all CHP deputies.
Although Parliament would probably not lift his immunity for fear of opening the floodgates, the threat alone heightens the culture of tension and fear which Kılıçdaroğlu decried. For the government to insist on the judiciary’s independence is an increasingly flimsy excuse when it is silencing any power base which is opposed to the AKP.
So where next? Has the Ergenekon investigation begun to spiral out of control? In this kind of environment, almost anything now seems possible and conspiracy theories run rife. Is Kılıçdaroğlu an innocent politician being crushed by the AKP and their supposedly omniscient backers, supporters of the controversial cleric Fetullah Gülen? Or is he a tool of the Kemalist ‘deep state’ doing the bidding of the military? And where do the CIA fit in?
All of this links back to an earlier point made by Ihsan Dagi which I noted in an earlier post. The AKP has been so successful partly because it originally set itself up as a champion of a democratic and accountable state against the shadowy, self-serving elites embodied in Ergenekon: as Dagi puts it, this “constantly rejuvenated the AK Party's democratic credentials within the system”.
The more the AKP wins that necessary battle, the more it takes on the aspects of the deep state which it has defeated: unaccountability, intolerance of dissenting voices, manipulation of the judiciary and the media, and a desire to become synonymous with the state. The arrest of Başbuğ and, even more so, the attack on Kılıçdaroğlu suggests that this disturbing trend is becoming more intense than ever.