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Arrests of Turkish Generals Spark Concern about Authoritarian Rule

The Turkish government's arrest of 49 generals and high ranking military officers this week is being described as a political earthquake. The arrests are part of an investigation into an alleged plot to overthrow the country's Islamic-rooted government . But there are growing concerns that the arrests could signal the start of a new era of authoritarian rule.

One pro-government newspaper headline screamed "Coup Leaders Hammered." The 49 serving and retired senior military officials are all reportedly being interrogated in connection with an alleged coup plot, called Sledgehammer.

Since its foundation in 1923 the Turkish Republic has been a strict secular state, and the army, which views itself as the guardian of the secular state, has forced four governments from office since 1960. But until these arrests, according to political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bachesehir University, the military considered itself untouchable. "Its historic it is something that the country has never seen before, I mean four star generals although retired, have been arrested en masse. I think its beginning of a new era, we are at the very beginning of the demilitarization process in this country, like in Spain, Greece, and Portugal in the 70s and the 80s," he said.

But not everyone in Turkey is so euphoric. Both the leaders of the main opposition parties expressed concern. Deniz Bahceli leader of the national action party addressing his parliamentary deputies said this is not a legal process, but rather political.

According to political columnist Nuray Mert, the judiciary too has fallen victim to the deepening polarization within the country, between supporters of the government and those who accuse it of threatening the secular state.

"Under these circumstances between these two camps pro-government and anti-government, nothing can be solved, and the judiciary is divided into two. Everything is divided into two, society is divided into two, judiciary is also divided into two. So under the circumstances there can't be any kind resolution of the crisis, within the judiciary," Mert said.

Observers say concerns in Turkey over the judiciary have steadily grown with an ongoing investigation into another alleged military-led conspiracy known as ergenekon. Although initially broadly welcomed, as the numbers of arrests rose into the hundreds, including many government critics, questions are growing over its legitimacy.

Added to that, there have been reports that the government has authorized over the past three years more than 100,000 phones taps, including taps on senior judges and prosecutors.

But the government has hit back, saying elements of the judiciary are part of a conspiracy against it. In, 2008 the government narrowly escaped being forced from office after being convicted of undermining the secular state by the constitutional court.

Tensions rose again earlier this month when a government appointed special prosecutor, investigating the alleged ergenekon conspiracy, was stripped of his powers by senior judges. The action against that special prosecutor came after he arrested another prosecutor who was investigating an Islamic brotherhood group for suspected corruption and money-laundering.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan now says urgent judiciary reform is needed

"Whether or not opposition parties support it, we will bring the judicial reform to the parliament. If we get enough votes to carry it to referendum, we will carry the issue to our people," he said.

But while the government hasn't announced its proposals, the principle of judicial reform is supported by the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join. Government critics say the prime minister could be seeking to remove one of the last checks to his power. "I mean in any democracy country these things, labeled as checks and balances, including the judiciary, are being called interferences, illegitimate interference's according to the definition of this government and their supporters definition of democracy. So this itself is quite intimidating and scary," said columnist Mert.

Such concerns and the more general political polarization over the government in Turkey could destroy any hopes of judicial reform, according to political scientist Cengiz Aktar. He says irrespective of the nature of the reform any national referendum is unlikely to succeed. "Well unfortunately this referendum will turn out to be a referendum of the government, it wont will really reflect the real debate. And so in that sense its quite risky. And people wont vote for the judicial reform or the constitutional amendments, people will vote for or against the Ak (ruling party). So it wont mean anything," he said.

In a bid to defuse tensions the Turkish president Abdullah Gul met Tuesday with two senior judges. But observers say few people expect such an intervention to succeed. The deepening political row over whether the government is leading the country to a stronger more secure democracy or to an authoritarian regime shows no signs of ending any time soon.