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Was Turkey’s corruption probe a 'coup attempt'?

The assertion that the December corruption probe in Turkey was an attempt to bring down the government is a Machiavellian notion that places political goals above the principle of justice.

More than six months on, the “Dec. 17 corruption operation” in Turkey remains a central issue on the country’s political agenda. Some say the investigation was a “coup attempt” to topple an elected government, an argument that, from their point of view, precludes any discussion on the issue. Since it was a “coup attempt,” the argument goes, all democrats are supposed to denounce the probe and stand by the government. Anyone who fails to engage in this mission is seen as “faltering,” if not “siding with the putschists.”

Others, on the other hand, say the “coup” narrative is a smokescreen to cover up corruption. They hardly engage in any discussion on the likely political motives of the prosecutors and the police, playing down this aspect of the issue.

I, for my part, believe that one should disregard both approaches and analyze cool-headedly what the Dec. 17 operation really was. This article is an effort in that direction.

Let’s first see what a “coup” actually means. The definition provided by political literature is more or less obvious: A coup is the abrogation of constitutional order with the aim of toppling a government. Like when the army or a junta within the army moves tanks into the streets, shuts down parliament, rounds up politicians and declares military rule. Just as it happened on May 27, 1961, and Sept. 12, 1980, in Turkey.

Besides outright coups, Turkey has also witnessed coups designed to appear as if they were going “by the book.” Those coups did not abrogate the constitutional order but activated certain nondemocratic mechanisms that brought down elected governments. A typical example was the so-called “Feb. 28 process” which the army-dominated National Security Council (MGK) attempted in 1996 against Turkey’s first Islamist-led government. Similarly, the failed closure case against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2008 was a “judicial coup attempt” in a legal guise. (And that’s why, I stood wholeheartedly against the case.) Outlawing parties on ideological grounds was then legal under Turkish law, but had nothing to do with liberal democratic practices.

And what about the “corruption investigation” of Dec. 17? Was it also a practice that had nothing to do with democracy? Absolutely not. It was something that has a full place in democracy. Those who follow international news even occasionally would know that corruption investigations against elected politicians are commonplace in liberal democracies across the world, from Europe and Japan to the United States and France. Some politicians would be acquitted, some would be found guilty and resign and even get jail terms. But no one would even think of calling those processes a “coup.”

That’s why I never referred to the “Dec. 17 process” as a “coup” and never joined the chorus that did so. For me, the resignation, or the Supreme Court trial, of those responsible would have been the most natural and legitimate consequence of credible corruption accusations. Just as it happens in France, Japan and anywhere else.

Here some readers may instantly ask the following question: “Well said, but do they have a parallel state like ours in France or Japan? Do they have their judiciary usurped by a [religious] community?”

This counterargument is worth discussing. Let me highlight an important nuance here: This objection has nothing to do with the merits of the evidence uncovered in the Dec. 17 probe. It pertains only to the profile and intentions of the police and prosecutors who uncovered that evidence.

This means what? This means that if corruption does exist and if the investigators are driven not by a pure passion for justice but also some ideological/religious/factional motives, one can still not call it a “coup.” One can call it “a corruption probe with covert political motives.”

And is it a problem if a judicial process entails covert political motives? Certainly, it is. Because in that case the principle of fair trial could be breached and the judiciary, supposed to be “blind” to the political ramifications of justice, could become too “open-eyed” and even fanatical.

That’s why I followed the Dec. 17 process with a great measure of caution from the very beginning. On one side, I followed in awe the revelations of corruption and other scandals, including the prime minister’s habit of calling and chiding media executives, which tells a lot about the state of press freedom in Turkey. As a citizen, I welcomed the exposure of all this. On the other side, however, I questioned the intentions and credibility of those who were exposing the scandals. I acknowledged that the probe’s timing, the chief prosecutor being kept in the dark about the probe, the simultaneous interception of trucks sent to Syria by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and the eventual slew of audio tapes leaked on the Internet did not seem “normal” at all.

Let me elaborate a little bit on that second point. What I refer to here is obvious: the Gulen community “fabric” said to exist within the police and the judiciary. I approve of and value the community’s services in the civic realm, but I have never approved of the deeds attributed to that “fabric.” Just on the contrary, I have long denounced whatever is being attributed to that “fabric” today, especially the unfair imprisonment of former police chief Hanefi Avci and the unlawful practices in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer coup cases.

But the overwhelming majority of those who have recently become an arch-enemy of that “fabric” — or the “parallel state” — had no objections a year ago to the unlawful practices they attribute to the “parallel state” today. They didn’t lament the existence of a separate hierarchy within the state at the time. They cared not for the prosecutors’ profile but the evidence those prosecutors presented, basking in euphoria that “the untouchables were being touched.” Their joy stemmed from the political benefits they reaped as the same judiciary managed to “touch the untouchables,” that is, to lock up scores of military officers — no matter that it did so fanatically. Over the past six months, though, they came to see the judiciary as so harmful that they made it the target of an unprecedented lynching campaign.

To be frank, what I see in this attitude today is not pro-democracy gallantry fighting bravely against coups, but rather a Machiavellianism that puts its political objectives above any principle of justice. The spearheads of that Machiavellianism have already openly said they are “defending politics.” Yet, what actually needs to be defended (and sought out) in Turkey today is not politics, but justice — a justice that will not be the tool of any government, religious community or ideology, but will only uphold universal norms.

In this context, the following conclusion can be drawn on the Dec. 17 process:

If a “parallel state” did manipulate and override the law in the Dec. 17 probe or in earlier political cases, that structure should be uncovered and punished through legal means. Yet, this cannot be a pretext to ignore the evidence presented either in the Dec. 17 probe or in the earlier cases.

The “parallel state” narrative cannot serve as a basis for the government to mount an all-out war against an entire civic movement. That would mean the end of the rule of law. Similarly, the government cannot subjugate the judiciary to itself on the grounds it is stamping out the “parallel state.” That would mean the end to the separation of powers; that is, a shift to dictatorship.

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