ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A referendum in Turkey on constitutional reform set for the 30th anniversary of a military coup has stirred painful memories of brutal repression.
The September 12 vote will decide whether to rewrite a so-called “Coup Constitution” drafted under military tutelage in 1982.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan says the 26-article package of reforms will strengthen democracy and help the secular Muslim nation’s bid for membership of the European Union. His critics say it will give the ruling AK Party control over the judiciary.
With control over the Constitutional Court, those critics argue, the AK Party will have greater freedom to advance a hidden Islamist agenda that the party denies it has.
Making the case for constitutional change in parliament last month, Erdogan choked back tears as he read aloud the final letter of a far-right youth hanged after the 1980 coup.
During the repression around 50 people were executed, hundreds of thousands were arrested, many were tortured, hundreds died in custody and many disappeared.
It seems like a different age. More than half of Turkey’s 73 million people weren’t born when the 1980 coup took place.
The growing prosperity of recent years stands in stark contrast to that economically downtrodden era, when the ideological struggle was mainly between left and right.
Turkey suffered three coups between 1960 and 1980, while in 1997 the army persuaded an Islamist-led government to resign.
The nation remains haunted by those tumultuous times, with the struggle these days lying between a rising, conservative middle class who form the bedrock of the AK Party and a secularist old guard which has seen its power ebb.
Yasar Okuyan, a former labour minister, was a leader of a far-right party in 1980. After the coup he was imprisoned.
Like many people, Okuyan sees the reforms as a ploy by Erdogan to purge judges and prosecutors who almost succeeded in having the ruling party banned in 2007 for having Islamist ties.
He scoffs at Erdogan’s tears over those times.
“They are settling other scores here,” Okuyan said. “To save his own skin he is getting emotional and crying in front of the nation to build up the referendum process.”
Stealing some of Erdogan’s thunder, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the main opposition Republican Workers Party (CHP), has called for an amendment to a law that enshrines the army’s role to “watch over and protect” Turkey.
If Erdogan was serious about protecting democracy, Kilicdaroglu says, the AK Party would have sought changes to Article 35 that coup-makers have used to justify their actions.
In 1980, Erdogan was a youth leader of an Islamist party that was banned along with other political groups. He now leads the Justice and Development Party, known as the AK, which will seek its third term in an election due by July next year.
Conservative on social issues and liberal on economic ones, the AK eschews the Islamist label, sees itself as akin to Europe’s Christian Democrats and denies accusations that it wants to roll back secularism by stealth in Turkey.
Having begun negotiating to join the European Union in 2005, Erdogan has used EU-driven reforms to rein in the military.
The contentious elements of the reform package are articles related to the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors.
Among the other changes is one that will make military personnel answerable to civilian courts and another to deter Turkey’s generals from power grabs in future by stripping the 1980 coup-makers of immunity. It could spark a rush to court.
“There are hundreds of thousands like me who are victims and we will apply to court,” said Oral Calislar, who was jailed after the coup as a leader of the Maoist Turkish Workers and Peasants Party. He was released from prison in 1988.
Legal experts say a 30-year statute of limitations will prevent the coup leaders from being tried.
General Kenan Evren, who became president after leading the 1980 coup, has spent his retirement painting at a Mediterranean resort. Now an ailing 93-year-old, Evren has said he does not regret overthrowing the government.
Some 5,000 people were killed in violence between far-left and far-right factions before the coup, and Evren argues that military rule stopped the carnage.
Many Turks suspect that the American Central Intelligence Agency fomented the strife that made its frontline, Cold War ally ripe for a military takeover. The national consciousness remains susceptible to conspiracies.
For the past three years, investigators have run probes into a series of alleged plots by an ultra-nationalist network.
Retired and serving officers are among the hundreds of defendants. At first the public applauded the government, but as the detentions multiplied and writers and academics were also caught in its web, many people began to wonder who to believe.
Later this year, trials will begin over an alleged plot in 2003 to destabilise Erdogan’s government, though the military says “Operation Sledgehammer” was merely a wargame seminar.
Regardless, surveys show the military is the most respected institution in Turkey, partly reflecting the reverence for the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who vanquished foreign occupying after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Most Turks believe the time of coups is over, but many want closure on the past and remembrance of the coup victims.
“If there have been three military coups in a country and nobody has been called to account,” writer and journalist Calislar said, “I think it is good that a prime minister should express his sadness over the killing of these people.”
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Michael Roddy