ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s “pashas”, the generals who once made politicians quake at the mere hint of disapproval, are staying silent as riots sweep the nation. Today the words “military coup” are nowhere to be heard, a tribute perhaps to the prime minister now accused of trampling on democracy.
Until recently Turkish army chiefs repeatedly got rid of politicians who displeased them or proved unable to cope with turmoil. In 1960 they toppled a premier and later hanged him; three more coups followed in 40 years.
Today’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, however, has whittled away the army’s power and even holds up his executed predecessor as a political model.
Since his first election victory a decade ago, Erdogan has abolished a security council apparatus that was effectively a parallel government, and overseen the arrest of hundreds of generals and top officers on coup plot allegations. Even a former Chief of General Staff languishes in jail.
In the “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” cases, as well as the related “Blonde Girl” and “Moonlight” affairs, prosecutors alleged that officers plotted to incite a wave of protests and street violence. This was to be followed by bombings and shootings, clearing the way for military intervention against Erdogan who comes from an Islamist background that the army views with deep suspicion.
“The aim of this pressure was to silence and paralyze the army, as Erdogan feared its reaction to his policies,” said Armagan Kuloglu, a retired general close to jailed officers. “The body of our armed forces still has the same view they had in the past but prefers to stay away from politics.”
It was a preference foisted upon them. Erdogan presented the curbing of army power as a democratic process but militant secularists saw it as a trick to humble a force regarded as defender of the secular republic against Islamist rule.
The last two weeks have seen protests, centered on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, in which Turks from a wide range of backgrounds have accused Erdogan of overreaching the authority invested by three election victories for his AK Party. The pashas, however, have stayed behind the high walls of their city centre barracks.
Some saw the ever-present hand of the army in the past as a barrier to the development of democracy in more ways than one.
Where the pashas stood as guarantors of order, civilian leaders never developed the maturity to settle disputes by political process; “The generals will save us” was the unspoken calculation. Their contempt deepened accordingly for a political class which in their eyes too often resembled squabbling youths.
Almost the entire ruling elite was rounded up in a 1980 coup that followed months of street fighting between left and right.
But there is an irony in all this for Erdogan, who is accused of wielding his power in too uncompromising a manner, not least in suppressing the protests in the last two weeks.
“If Erdogan had not grown stronger over time, and if he had not used his power in an effective and deterrent manner, would it have been possible to put an end to the system of military tutelage?” asked academic Mumtazer Turkone in Zaman newspaper.
No wilting violet could take on the Turkish army, cow it into silence and bundle it from the political stage.
What seems to have been the final showdown - the attempted “e-coup” - came in 2007 when the General Staff posted on its website a statement warning Erdogan against promoting AK party co-founder Abdullah Gul to president. This, it said, would threaten the secular order and it would feel obliged to act.
Generations of politicians before had bowed to such pressure, but the AK leadership, fully aware of the dangers, issued a statement chiding the pashas for their interference. Nothing happened. The military had played its trump and lost.
“This government did everything to neutralize the army because they knew that when the time came, like today, we would interfere to back the Turkish nation,” said one retired general who asked not to be named. “But now, there is no army, no military ... Today as you see, our poor nation is at Taksim, alone with no powerful institution or organization’s backing.”
It is hard to gauge to what extent these views represent the prevailing mood in the high command. The leadership has been overhauled and the vetting of young officers changed.
Erdogan’s critics say his early social and rights reforms, the realignment of the army and moves towards the European Union have given way to an authoritarian style, pressure on the media and intolerance of dissent.
Among the protesters are secularists who would look to the army to intervene against a prime minister they see as conniving to undermine the secular order created in 1923 by Western-facing state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Many protesters are too young to recall even the last coup 16 years ago, let alone the violent 1980s takeover.
“Of course I don’t remember that time because I wasn’t even born, but everyone talks about how things were much worse in the 70s and 80s,” said Seher Gedik, 24, who works at a bank. “We want to move forward, not backwards.”
Erdogan, who once spent several months in prison for reciting a poem deemed by a court to incite religious hatred, denies ambitions to create an Islamic order.
In power, he has allowed women in head scarves - symbols of female Islamic piety - into state institutions and introduced restrictions on alcohol sales. Both are actions with symbolic potency that would have angered the military.
When Turkey’s first Islamist-led government was in power in the 1990s, prime minister Necmettin Erbakan invited the military command to dinner. According to a story widely reported at the time, when offered an assortment of fruit juices, one of the generals angrily waved the servant away with the words “bring me some raki, boy.”
In 1997, Erbakan was toppled in what became known as the “post-modern coup” - a coordinated campaign of pressure backed up with a convoy of tanks passing through a Turkish town.
Erbakan’s party, which included Erdogan in its ranks, won only about 20 percent of the vote. Under Erdogan the AK Party has taken 40-50 percent over three elections since 2002, making any intervention by the army more difficult from the start.
Perpetrators of the post-modern coup have been pursued with particular vigor by the AK establishment.
Some of Erdogan’s comments suggest he is far from certain the age of the coup is over. In the current unrest he has cited as a political model Adnan Menderes, like himself a reforming prime minister later deemed by critics to have overreached his authority. This was the man the army ousted in 1960 and hanged.
“Ergenekon is still something he thinks about,” said a source familiar with Erdogan. “The army is something that runs in the veins of the Turkish people. It won’t be washed away.”
Erdogan wastes no opportunity to solicit the loyalty of ordinary soldiers traditionally known as “Mehmet”.
“Be glad, Mehmet, our head is held high,” he said, citing an Islamic poet at a rally. “Be glad whether we die or come back home. Don’t think this wheel will stick in this rut. Tomorrow is ours. The sun has risen, the sun has set, eternity is ours.”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley; editing by David Stamp