Following the arrest of the generals involved in the 1997 “post-modern coup” that toppled Necemttin Erbakan’s government and outlawed his Refah Party, Erdoğan yesterday declared the era of military coups over and said that Turkey is no longer a “coup country.” While this appears to be a dangerous prediction given Turkey’s history, the purging of generals and the prosecution of officers as part of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations, along with the trials for the September 12 and February 28 coup plotters, means that Erdoğan is probably right. The military is no longer in a position to overthrow the government and was badly exposed when it tried unsuccessfully to intimidate the AKP from appointing Abdullah Gül as president, and the various reprisals it has suffered over the past few years are going to have the intended effect of keeping the officers in their barracks.
Few people will argue that this is a bad thing. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, civilian control of the military is a hallmark of democracy and Turkey has finally established true vertical accountability. At the same time, Erdoğan must not use his newfound unfettered power to create a different type of problem for Turkey’s democracy. While military interference in democratic politics is a bad thing, so is using democratic institutions to advance creeping authoritarianism. Worrisome signs abound, including the fact that the investigations into the military have been trumped up and relied on forged documents, and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has denounced the recent arrest of the February 28 generals as motivated by a desire for revenge. After all, Erdoğan was a Refah member and a disciple of Erbakan, and the harsher restrictions placed on public displays of religion following the coup must have rankled Erdoğan personally. Now that the military is out of the picture as a constraint – and Erdoğan’s declaration of Turkey being coup proof indicates that he himself now feels that his freedom of movement is unrestrained by the army – it is crucial that the temptation of bending the rules to make the AKP a permanent ruling party is avoided. Turkey has made great strides in some areas, such as empowering the ability of Turks to participate in democratic politics with an increased voice on constitutional issues, and now that the structural constraint of military oversight is gone, it will be an encouraging sign for Turkey’s democratic future if the government does not now overreach and crack down further on groups that present challenges to its rule, real or perceived.