BACKGROUND: On February 7, the “specially authorized” prosecutor Sadrettin Sarıkaya in Istanbul summoned the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT), Hakan Fidan, his predecessor Emre Taner, the former deputy undersecretary of MİT Afet Güneş and two other MİT officials to testify – as suspects – as part of the ongoing investigation of the Kurdistan Committees Union (KCK), which the prosecutors claim is controlled by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and as such engaged in terrorist activities. Hundreds of Kurdish politicians, dozens of journalists and prominent intellectuals have been arrested since the KCK investigation was launched in 2009. However, the prosecutor’s latest move is unprecedented, and has revealed the existence of deep fissures within the Turkish state, over which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was supposed to have established full control after having vanquished the military and redesigned the composition of the judiciary.
Not only does the MİT Undersecretary report directly to the prime minister, Hakan Fidan is also one of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trusted advisors; his summons by the special prosecutor as a “suspect” was therefore a direct challenge to the authority of Erdoğan himself. As it were, Fidan refused to heed the summons of the prosecutor, and so did the other “suspects”, which prompted the prosecutor to issue a warrant for their arrest. The AKP government scrambled to stave off the challenge; the prosecutor was removed from the case on February 11 and two police chiefs in Istanbul were reassigned. The AKP subsequently introduced a bill in parliament that amends Article 26 of the MİT personnel law, offering comprehensive legal immunity for intelligence officials, as well as other state functionaries who are designated by the prime minister to undertake special tasks; according to the amended law, which was approved by President Abdullah Gül on February 17, questioning these officials about crimes that they may have committed in the line of duty will henceforth require the permission of the prime minister.
Initially, there was some uncertainty as to exactly what crime the prosecutor was about to charge the MİT undersecretary, his predecessor and the other MİT officials with; according to the deputy chief prosecutor in Istanbul, they had been summoned to answer questions regarding the suspicion that undercover MİT agents in the KCK had been accomplices of acts of violence. However, that seems improbable since if that had indeed been the case, the prosecutor could simply have requested a clarification from the MİT. Instead, there is every reason to assume that the prosecutor had a political agenda; what was about to be indicted was the policies of the government.
In his first public speech since the crisis in the state erupted, on February 19, Erdoğan stated that “any attempt to derail us amounts to an attempt to interfere with Turkey’s course”, and he vowed that he was not going to let those who are appointed “enslave” the elected representatives of the will of the people. Even though the MİT undersecretary is himself unelected, he had been charged by Erdoğan with the task of continuing the dialogue of the state with the PKK. Not coincidentally, the MİT undersecretary, his predecessor, his predecessor’s deputy and the two other high ranking MİT officials have all been part of the Turkish state delegation in the secret dialogue with the PKK.
IMPLICATIONS: The Turkish state has been engaged in an intermittent dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, as well as with other PKK representatives since 2005, and between 2009 and June 2011 these talks – known as the “Oslo process”, since they have reportedly taken place partly in the Norwegian capital – appear to have reached a level where the most sensitive issues – from Öcalan’s eventual release to a new constitution – were broached. However, the talks were broken off by the Turkish side after the June 12, 2011 general election, when the ruling AKP won its third consecutive election victory by a landslide. Representatives of the Kurdish movement maintain that Erdoğan refused to sign a protocol upon which the negotiators of the MİT and the PKK had agreed and that, in a hubristic mood after his landslide re-election, decided to abandon the dialogue track, instead opting for a hard-line stance. However, the latest developments suggest that Erdoğan’s reluctance to pursue the talks with the PKK and his unwillingness to offer concessions to the Kurdish side may have had less to do with hubris and all the more with the divergence of opinions within the state and indeed, within Erdoğan’s own political coalition.
The conclusion that imposes itself in light of recent events is that Erdoğan either did not feel strong enough to overrule those within the state apparatus that have mounted a fierce opposition to a negotiated solution, or that he was swayed by their argumentation in favor of hard-line tactics. That the forces against a negotiated solution have no compunction in defying Erdoğan’s authority and are prepared to go as far as attempting to decapitate a crucial state institution, which they intimate is guilty of nothing less than treason – and by implication attack the prime minister himself – speak of the intensity of that opposition.
On an institutional level, the war within the state pits the police and part of the judiciary against the intelligence service; in political terms the stand-off is between those who want to crush the Kurdish movement and those who favor negotiations with the PKK. Yet on a deeper level, the state crisis is about the distribution of power within the state; it has brought to public attention the aspirations of the movement (cemaat) of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen to shape government policies. It is generally assumed that the Gülen brotherhood controls the police and that it wields significant influence in the judiciary, as well as being entrenched in other parts of the state bureaucracy.
The brotherhood has been a critically important ally of the AKP, and it has not least been instrumental in neutralizing the threat to the AKP that was posed by the military; in no small degree, the AKP owes its survival to the persistence with which the specially authorized prosecutors and the police, backed by and staffed with adherents of the Gülen brotherhood, have gone after coup conspiracies in the military. However, the recent crisis has revealed that the erstwhile allies have turned into protagonists, with the dailyZaman, the media flagship of the Gülen brotherhood, campaigning in favor of the attempt to defy the authority of Prime Minister Erdoğan. Ruşen Çakır, a journalist at the daily Vatan and an expert on the Islamic movement in Turkey, describes the MİT crisis as the worst strategic mistake in the Gülen movement’s history, and he suggests that it miscalculated Erdoğan’s strength, wrongly assuming that the AKP would not risk jeopardizing the support the movement lends it.
In fact, if anything, the recent crisis has brought home to the AKP the need to emancipate itself from the brotherhood’s embrace. This is not entirely novel: Erdoğan, it appears, has for some time been apprehensive of the movement’s ambitions – or perhaps simply felt an increasing urgency to halt it. Thus, Gülenists were reportedly decimated in the AKP parliamentary lists ahead of the 2011 elections, and public administration reform the same year was used to halt their advance across the bureaucracy. But the rift is now out in the open.
Thus, Writing in the pro-AKP daily Sabah, Hatem Ete, a research director at SETA, a think
tank close to the governing party, described the Gülenists as “neo-Kemalists”: “What we are
facing are the neo-Kemalists of the new Turkey, who have attained a privileged position as they waged a battle against the Kemalist privileges of the old Turkey, and they are now exhibiting an inclination to pursue the tutelage that they have inherited.” He suggests that the time has arrived to abrogate the authority vested in the “special prosecutors” and the “specially authorized courts”. It is these extraordinary powers that have made it possible to dispatch scores of generals, most recently a former chief of the general staff, to prison, but the “special authority” has increasingly come to be wielded ever more indiscriminately, notably against the Kurdish movement. Their victory against the once almighty generals has emboldened the police and the prosecutors, but so has also the fact that the AKP government, and thus Erdoğan himself, privileged the methods advocated by them. Yet, while the Gülen-backed police and judiciary – just like the military once did – have a vested interest in the perpetuation of a state of emergency, one could argue that the best interests of the AKP may on the contrary served by the pursuit of democratization.
If Erdoğan’s vow that he is not going to let the police and judiciary “enslave” the executive is any indication, the AKP has no intention to succumb to the “new tutelage”. Indeed, as he is compelled to circumscribe the power of those who have dared to defy him – and who by definition thrive with the application of oppressive security measures – Erdoğan now has a strong incentive to seek to broaden democracy, including a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue. However, while the incentive is clear, Erdoğan’s past behavior does not suggest that the elimination of erstwhile rivals to his power has made him more inclined to embrace liberal democratic principles. Quite to the contrary, his authoritarian inclinations have grown in parallel with his consolidation of power and the elimination of that of his rivals. And if his main aim today, as is widely assumed, is to impose a presidential constitution on Turkey and assume a strengthened presidency, he may be inclined to continue to concentrate power in his own hands when eliminating rival sources of power such as the Gülen movement.
CONCLUSIONS: Erdoğan once became a democrat by necessity; he had to defeat an authoritarian system, upheld by the military, in order to survive politically, and the key to his success was his appropriation of the banner of democratization. Today, the power imperative and the necessity of democratization have similarly converged; if he is to prevail against the emerging “tutelage” of the police and the judiciary, backed by the Gülen brotherhood, Erdoğan will have to opt for a democratic, negotiated solution to the Kurdish problem. Only if he ceases to rely on the methods that are prescribed by the police – and which offer state authoritarianism a new lease on life – can he hope to defeat the new attempt to “enslave” the public will.
In fact, polls indicate that there is wide public support for negotiations with the PKK, but Erdoğan has neglected to capitalize on this support. He has not engaged in a dialogue with society with the aim of creating a public constituency for compromise. The state crisis that erupted on February 7 is a reminder that leaving the Kurdish issue to the devices of the state is not a solution. Not only do authoritarian reflexes prevail, but ultimately state power itself decomposes. During the 1990s, the Turkish state putrefied from within as it waged a dirty war against the Kurdish insurgency, and today state power is similarly in decay. Ensuring that the MİT undersecretary is protected from the interference of a hostile judiciary is not a long-term solution to the travails of the AKP government; defeating the challenge to its power and resolving the one issue that cripples Turkey requires that Erdoğan puts faith in democratic politics, on what can be accomplished by building support among the public.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.