After all these years and revelations about the misconduct the military engaged in, is the Feb. 28 process still continuing? Well, there are many in business, politics and particularly the military who wish it continued, but I am sorry, for them, to say it is over. The generals and others who were involved in this process of imposing sophisticated military rule over Turkish politics and the economy are now being prosecuted. The media group that wholeheartedly supported this “soft coup” is in trouble economically and image-wise. And the person who was targeted and put in prison for nothing at the time has been prime minister of Turkey for eight years after winning two elections and is set to win for the third time in June 2011.
What did happen during the Feb. 28 process? The whole process was staged by a few strong generals with political ambitions. The military, led by them, aligned with some sectors of civil society, launching a campaign justified by the fear that secularism was under “threat” in the face of the “Islamist challenge” represented by the Welfare Party (RP), then the greater partner in a coalition government. Within the General Staff a special “working group” was formed to investigate so-called “Islamist activities” as a result of which thousands in the bureaucracy, civil society and business were unlawfully “monitored.” Not only Islamic groups, but wider democratic sectors were targeted as well. Journalists who did not collaborate with them were publicly discredited with fake confessions and fired by their newspapers. Proof of the “threat” was documented with newspaper reports that had in fact been serviced to newspapers by the military-staffed “working group,” then all these reports were used in the prosecution of the accused. In short, it was a time when the rule of law, human rights and democracy were shelved by the military and its allies in the judiciary and the media.
Numerous “briefings” were organized by the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), where judicial personnel, journalists and other professionals were asked to “submit” to the military’s views and strategy. As a result, the ruling government was forced to resign, the biggest political party in Parliament was closed down by the Constitutional Court, the popular mayor of İstanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was imprisoned, private companies described as having “Islamic capital” were investigated and hundreds of NGOs were shut down. The government was offered another political party “in a golden tray,” as the chief of General Staff put it then.
In short the “Feb. 28” experience was an attempt by the military to design Turkish politics, control the Turkish economy and redistribute the sources to their allies. It cost a lot to Turkey, economically and politically but it failed in the end.
When it became clear that they failed to design Turkish politics in a way that served their personal and sectoral interests, the generals started right away on a new strategy, which was one of taking over the government directly -- this time not by “soft” methods as they used in the Feb. 28 process. This is in fact how the Sledgehammer plan was conceived and put in practice only a few months after the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) November 2002 electoral victory. The Sledgehammer commanders involved wanted to finish off the job they started in 1997. But they were late, and domestic and international circumstances were not conducive to such a direct military take over. Turkey’s deepening involvement with the EU, improving economic performance, the increasing inflow of foreign capital as well as the government’s tough and determined position, pro-democracy public opinion and new democratic media outlets thwarted the plans to finish off democratic rule.
In short, the Feb. 28 experience shows that the greatest obstacle to Turkish democracy lies in the form of civil-military relations. Unless the military is confined to its barracks and prevented from interfering in politics we cannot establish a working democracy. And Turkey has taken great steps in this direction. Alleged coup plotters are being tried, the media is diversified and business is aware that democratic stability is the key to economic growth. It is also increasingly understood by global forces that sustaining and consolidating democracy in Turkey is vital for the stability and security of not only Turkey but its wider region.