ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey's Islamic-rooted government has scored two victories in its quest to end the military's decades-long influence over politics.
This week, it sent one of the country's most powerful generals to jail for leading efforts to force the resignation of the country's first Islamist prime minister. Earlier in the month, it put two leaders of a 1980 military coup on trial.
It's all part of a drive by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to project to the world an image that Turkey, struggling to keep alive its European Union dreams, has definitively buried its authoritarian past. At the same time, his government's actions raise questions about whether Turkey, in cracking down on a military seen as a guarantor of secularist ideals, is tilting toward a different form of Islamist authoritarianism.
Erdogan, enjoying broad support in his third consecutive term, denies allegations by the main pro-secular opposition party that his government is seeking "revenge" on generals who have ousted four governments since 1960 — mostly in reaction to suspected moves to raise Islam's profile in society.
But Erdogan and his Cabinet members made triumphant speeches after a court jailed retired Gen. Cevik Bir along with several other former military officers over their role in ousting late Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan.
Erbakan had drawn the ire of the generals for allegedly seeking to allow civil servants to wear Islamic-style clothing and change work hours to suit religious fasting. On Feb. 28, 1997, the National Security Council — dominated by generals — threatened action if Erbakan didn't back down; he resigned four months later.
"Even if it has been a mere 15 years and not a thousand, today Feb. 28 is on the defendant's chair," said Erdogan in an address to Parliament on Tuesday.
Erdogan — basking in economic success and rising diplomatic stature — is confidently calling for a new constitution enshrining greater democracy, overturning a military-imposed charter that took effect after the 1980 coup.
Bir and 17 other former officers were jailed pending trial on Monday, two weeks after another court in Ankara opened the trial of the elderly leaders of the 1980 military coup. Police rounded up about a dozen more officers on Thursday.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the pro-secular Republican People's Party, accused the government of being motivated by "revenge." Although Erdogan vehemently denied it, the prime minister said he bitterly remembered the days before and after Feb. 28.
"In the darkest and haziest days of Feb. 28, we used to sit down and talk with my friends," Erdogan said. "We would repeatedly clench our fists and bite our lips — and would say 'oh patience!"
Today, hundreds of people, including many active and retired officers, are standing trial separately in more recent alleged coup plots. The trials were welcomed by the public at first, but long imprisonments without verdicts and alleged irregularities by prosecutors have stirred claims that the government is manipulating the legal process.
The prosecutions have fueled claims in the secularist camp that Erdogan is intent on pushing a stronger Islamist agenda. Past actions underpin such suspicions. Erdogan banned alcoholic beverages at city-run coffee shops when he was Istanbul's mayor in the mid-1990s. His government tried to criminalize adultery after coming to power in late 2002 but had to step back under pressure from the EU.
The prime minister insists that he is simply protecting the nation against power-hungry generals.
"God willing and the people willing, Turkey will not go through dark days again," Erdogan said Tuesday.