ON THE evening of March 4th, a black Mercedes swept into the Ankara headquarters of Turkey’s land-forces command. It was carrying Osman Paksut, the second-highest judge on the constitutional court. His assignation with the land-forces commander, General Ilker Basbug, was meant to be secret—all the security cameras were cut off as he entered and left the building—for it came at a highly delicate moment. The secular opposition had just petitioned the court to overturn a law passed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to allow women to wear the Islamic-style headscarf at universities.
Less than four weeks later, on March 31st, the court said that it would take a case brought by the chief prosecutor to ban the AKP and 71 named officials, including the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the president, Abdullah Gul. The case rests on the claim that the defendants are trying to impose sharia law in Turkey.
This decision makes the meeting between Mr Paksut and General Basbug, who is tipped to replace Yasar Buyukanit as chief of the general staff when he retires in August, all the more suspicious. Indeed, it reinforces the view of many Turks that lying behind the case is an attempt by the generals to use the courts to overthrow Turkey’s mildly Islamist government in a “judicial coup”. This follows the generals’ threatened “e-coup” of April 2007, when they tried unsuccessfully to stop Mr Gul becoming president.
Few Turks would have known of the meeting had news of it not been broken by a small daily newspaper, Taraf. Since its launch last November under the motto “to think is to take sides”, Taraf (which means side in Turkish) has published a string of stories exposing the army’s efforts to undermine the AKP government. It has thus become even bigger than “the most honest and prestigious newspaper” that was the dream of its 39-year-old owner, Basar Arslan. Amid speculation that the army may be preparing a direct coup, Taraf has become a standard-bearer for the rising numbers of young and increasingly vocal Turks who say the people, not the generals, should determine the country’s future. Last week 7,000 of them gathered in central Istanbul in a rally against coups, many of them brandishing Taraf.
The paper, whose news coverage remains spotty, made its biggest splash so far when it recently published a document detailing alleged plans by the general staff to mobilise public opinion against the government and its sympathisers. The blueprint was drawn up after the AKP was returned to power for a second five-year term in July 2007. In a limp rebuttal, the top brass said it had “not approved” any such document, but stopped short of denying its existence. Indeed, much of the paper’s information comes straight from disgruntled “deep throats” within the army.
Such leaks have dented the army’s image and fuelled debate over a possible rift within the high command. Internal divisions surfaced last year when Nokta, a weekly, published excerpts from the diary of a former navy commander in which he described two abortive coup attempts in 2004. Soon afterwards, the magazine was forced to close and its editor prosecuted for libel. Might Taraf suffer a similar fate?
Taraf is already a stronger institution than Nokta. “We are changing the rules the mainstream media work by in this country,” declares Yasemin Congar, its combative deputy managing editor. Circulation, now at an average 24,000 copies every day, is growing. And this comes in the teeth of a smear campaign accusing Taraf of being financed by a powerful Islamist fraternity close to the AKP and of taking its orders from the United States.
Yet it would be easy to overstate the influence of Taraf, as indeed of civil society as a whole. “Turkish civil society barely has the strength to redirect major roads, let alone stop the generals from acting if they see it as in the national interest,” argues Howard Eissenstat, a New York-based historian. “Moreover, the high regard for the military and the particular tone of Turkish nationalism suggest that public reaction to a hard coup would be more of a ripple than a wave.” Then again, as Ms Congar noted in a recent column, “there are a few good men” in the army, whose view of Turkey’s national interest tends to favour democracy, and who will keep leaking information to Taraf.