Arrests of officers drive a wedge into Turkey

Accusations of military coups intended to bring down the government raise concern over 'serious polarisation' in the nation's politics.

ISTANBUL // The arrest of dozens of serving and former officers of Turkey's armed forces in recent days may have weakened a hitherto powerful institution widely seen as being opposed to political change. But as rifts between opposing political forces appear to be deeper than ever, the country's politicians are unlikely to agree on further democratic reforms to strengthen Turkey's EU bid. After the arrests, a top business representative warned of a "serious polarisation" in the political scene. Umit Boyner, the head of the Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, or Tusiad, the country's most powerful business lobby, said in a statement following meetings with political leaders in Ankara that "the polarisation and atmosphere of strife that affects different levels of society" had to be overcome.

In two countrywide police sweeps last week, about 70 active and retired military officers were arrested, and 35 of them, including generals and admirals, have been charged with having plotted to bring down the elected government by force. Their suspected coup plan, codenamed "Sledgehammer", included the bombing of mosques and the provocation of new tensions with Greece in an effort to pave the way for a military intervention, the prosecution says.

Former top commanders, including the former heads of the country's air force and navy as well as a former deputy chief of general staff, were released after being questioned, but are still regarded as suspects. If convicted, they could face life in prison. Other officers have been standing trial as suspected members of a nationalist organisation called Ergenekon that is also accused of having plotted a coup. The development is unprecedented for Turkey, a country where the military has been both highly regarded and politically powerful.

And the bad news just keeps coming for the generals. The military's embarrassment deepened late Monday when the general staff was forced to admit after a forensic investigation that another suspected coup plan, uncovered last year, may have been signed by a colonel serving at the armed forces headquarters. Civilian prosecutors had the colonel arrested twice, but Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of general staff, played down the alleged coup plot as just "a piece of paper". Now Gen Basbug's military prosecutors are investigating the case.

The events have left the military's reputation in tatters and have been hailed as a breakthrough for democracy by some. "The issue is not just taking people to account for actions in the past," Cengiz Candar, a columnist, wrote about the arrests and the coup plans in the Radikal newspaper. "The issue is safeguarding Turkey's democratic future." But others say they fear Turkey is in fact becoming less democratic. They accuse the religiously conservative government or Islamic brotherhoods of being behind a smear campaign designed to undermine the strictly secular armed forces. "This is not a legal process, this is a political settling of accounts," said Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader in Ankara.

The gulf between the government and those accusing it of undermining the republic means that reforms considered to be essential for progress in Turkey's troubled candidacy for membership in the European Union may have to wait, even if everyone agrees there are issues that should be tackled. A first test of the willingness of both sides to work together will come this month, and the first political skirmishes indicate that not too much can be expected on that front.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, said on the weekend that his government is working on a reform to overhaul the judicial system and wants to table the plan, which includes changes to the constitution, in parliament at the end of March. The move follows a heated debate about a decision by a judicial body opposed to the government to remove a special prosecutor from office after he had had another prosecutor arrested under suspicion of belonging to Ergenekon.

The prime minister said the government was taking European standards for the judiciary as an example and wanted to do "what is done in the 27 members of the EU". Brussels has long called for a comprehensive reform of the Turkish judiciary. But Mr Baykal, the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, the biggest opposition party in parliament, made it clear that Mr Erdogan should not expect broad support. "Of course changes to the constitution will be on Turkey's agenda," Mr Baykal said in a reply to Mr Erdogan's announcement. "But it will be a new and fresh government" after the next elections, to be held by the summer of 2011.

Turkey's bar association, known for its anti-government stance, also spoke out against the government's plans. "The reform cannot be tackled in today's atmosphere of conflict," it said this week. Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, commands the most seats in parliament, but does not have enough deputies for the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution. The prime minister has said that if there were no consensus on the changes between parties in parliament, he would take the issue to a referendum, which could take place in May.

Other reform plans by the governments are also likely to stir controversy. According to media reports, the government wants to stage a new effort to strengthen the oversight of the civilian judiciary over members of the military, although the constitutional court, acting after a CHP complaint, threw out an earlier version of that reform. The AKP, which narrowly escaped being shut down by the constitutional court two years ago, also wants to make it harder for the judiciary to ban political parties.