Political Game Changer in Turkey: The Decline and Fall of the Deep State

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

It has taken a court in Turkey almost five years to wrap up the trial of 531 suspected members of Ergenekon, an ultra-nationalist organization bent on overthrowing the government. On Monday the court handed down its last verdicts: 19 life sentences. The recipients were mostly army officers who were found guilty of attempting to stage a coup. Others who assisted in the preparations also received lengthy prison terms.

The verdicts reached during the Ergenekon trial establish two important parameters that strengthen Turkish democracy. The court ruled first that the conquest of power is a legitimate aspiration for any political grouping. The judges then went on to castigate those that pursue their aspirations of power outside the boundaries imposed by law.

However political analyst Hüseyin Kocabiyik, a former consultant to Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, doesn’t think Ergenekon has been entirely dismantled: “The group’s links to the media, the civil service and some political parties have yet to be severed.” Still Mr Kocabiyik considers the trial to have significantly contributed to Turkey’s political maturity.

“The court ruled first that the conquest of power is a legitimate aspiration for any political grouping. The judges then went on to castigate those that pursue their aspirations of power outside the boundaries imposed by law.”

The armed forces now seem a largely spent political force. The high command earlier this week issued a statement to the effect that it respects and applauds the court’s verdicts. Also significant was the collective salute given to the prime minister at the most recent meeting of the Supreme Military Council. This novelty came as a direct result of the Ergenekon trial and underlines the primacy of civilians in Turkey’s political life.

The one loose end remaining concerns Başkent University Rector Mehmet Haberal who was one of the defendants. Mr Haberal, who owns a television station, was released for time served after being sentenced to 12½ years for his involvement with Ergenekon. In 2011 he was elected to the Grand National Assembly on the ticket of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

It is widely expected that Mr Haberal will run for president in next year’s election. He’ll do so with the backing of both the CHP and the National Movement Party. According to Bekir Günay of the Istanbul University’s Eurasia Institute, Mr Haberal may yet be the undoing of the wider democratic accomplishments made possible by the Ergenekon trial: “As a politician, Mehmet Haberal strives to maintain the Ottoman’s state classical power pyramid of the military, the civil service and academia against which successive elected governments had to struggle.”

This is the Deep State: The shady but highly effective power structure that has ruled Turkey since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1946. The Deep State placed severe restrictions on the reach of elected governments. These were usually removed from power by the military in case of perceived overreach.

Next year Turkish voters may for the first time elect a president through a direct ballot. Mr Günay sees these elections as the perfect antidote to the politics of nostalgia as embodied by Mehmet Haberal.  “Turkish voters are not to be underestimated. They are quite mature and will undoubtedly opt for more democracy rather than less. The Ergenekon trial has shown the nation that nobody stands above the law. The court’s rulings give civilian politics a solid boost. It is now up to the politicians to show that they can handle this newfound authority.”

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