BACKGROUND: Since a major corruption probe against the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was launched on December 17, 2013, Turkey has moved forward toward political and economic instability. Importantly, the dragnet that landed 52 persons in jail included two separate tracks. One was connected to an apparent money-laundering scheme designed to bust the Iranian sanctions regime, involving millions of dollars in bribes to the ministers of Economy, Interior, and European affairs, as well as the CEO of the Halkbank state bank; the other featured two probes into illegalities in large-scale construction projects in Istanbul, and targeted the Minister of Environment and Urban Planning and a major construction mogul close to Erdoğan. (See December 18, 2013, issue of the Turkey Analyst)
On December 25, the four ministers accused of wrongdoing were removed in a cabinet shakeup. Three went quietly, but Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayraktar refused to follow suit, instead making a live statement in which he stated that he had acted solely on the Prime Minister’s instruction – and indeed stating that the Prime Minister should resign as well.
Characteristically, Erdoğan reacted by accusing the probe of being a dirty plot designed to ruin Turkey’s growth. With language that grew harsher by the day, he accused the movement of the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen (whose supporters in the judiciary are widely believed to have launched the probe) of being a “criminal gang” within the state controlled by Turkey’s enemies, especially the Jewish world conspiracy, and that needed to be eliminated. Within hours, Erdoğan had replaced dozens of police chiefs involved in the probe; in the following weeks, hundreds would be rotated. Since the prosecutors could not be immediately fired or removed, the government appointed additional, loyal prosecutors, providing a modicum of control over the probes. Moreover, the government on December 21, 2013, imposed a requirement forcing police officers to inform their superiors before acting on prosecutors’ orders – thereby obliterating the separation of powers and in practice preventing the judiciary from targeting government officials. The highest administrative court nevertheless invalidated the provision on December 26, 2013.
By then, the government had thwarted a second wave of the corruption probe. Extraordinarily, the government simply instructed the police not to implement the arrest orders provided by prosecutors. This probe included the Prime Minister’s son, Bilal Erdoğan, who was apparently accused of having facilitated shady deals involving Saudi businessman Yasin al-Qadi, an alleged al-Qaeda financier who remains a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” under U.S. law.
By mid-January, the flow of events had calmed somewhat. Yet Erdoğan’s rhetoric had not. On January 14, he compared the Gülen movement to the 12th-century hashashins, or assassins; he repeatedly used the term “treason” to refer to the corruption probes. In parallel, government officials began to threaten – and in some ways implement –a large-scale move against the Gülen movement’s assets, ranging from educational institutions, banks, businesses, and media outlets.
Finally, in a remarkable reversal for a Prime Minister who prided himself on forcing the military back to its barracks, Erdoğan now seemed to reach out to the General Staff for an ally against the Gülen movement. Several alleged masterminds of the 1997 “post-modern coup” have been released, and Erdoğan has promised a retrial for officers imprisoned under the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations – which he now argues were “framed” by the Gülenists.
IMPLICATIONS: An analysis of Turkey’s ongoing crisis must distinguish between two related but separate issues: Erdoğan’s ambitions and governing mode, and the power struggle involving the Gülen movement.
Since 2011, Erdoğan has overtly stated his disdain for the separation of powers, which he views as hindering the government’s ability to make and implement decisions. He has ever more clearly aspired to transform Turkey into a presidential system – one modeled on Vladimir Putin’s Russia rather than on the American system – with the aim of acceding to the presidency and ruling Turkey single-handedly for the next decade. As his ambitions of power and control have grown, so has his high-handedness and cavalier attitude toward the rule of law; which has, it must be noted, always been something of a fiction in Turkey, where the judiciary traditionally has acted to ensure the rule of the state over individuals and society. In fact, after winning re-election with nearly 50 percent of the vote, Erdoğan appeared to have concluded that he embodied Turkey’s public opinion. But in so doing, he began projecting and imposing his own views and values on the population, and therefore stopped reflecting public opinion. Indeed, by 2012, Erdoğan for the first time showed himself to be dangerously out of tune with the population. A clear majority of Turks opposed both of his major policy initiatives: the presidential system, and the intervention in Syria’s civil war.
Erdoğan’s ambitions thus began generating pushback from society, as the Gezi Park protests this past summer showed.(See June 24, 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst) In the same vein, Turkey’s liberal intellectual elite came to resent his authoritarian tendencies. More damagingly, large sections of the Islamic conservative movement began to view Erdoğan as a liability to their continued dominance of Turkey’s politics. The corruption charges have pierced the veneer of piety that had been Erdoğan’s key political asset.
The successive corruption probes worked to undermine Erdoğan’s international image as well as his domestic reputation. Wittingly or unwittingly, they pushed an already unhinged Erdoğan over the edge. Blatantly interfering in judiciary proceedings, Erdoğan appears like a guilty man covering up his or his associates’ and relatives’ crimes. He expanded his tendency of blaming foreign devils and their local allies for all his woes – going so far as to suggest the American ambassador may be expelled from the country. Yet opinion polls suggest that most people in Turkey did not believe the Gezi protests were organized by the country’s foreign enemies; and neither are they likely to believe the Gülen movement is a pawn of the Jewish world conspiracy.
A closer analysis suggests that the probes were masterfully selected to inflict a maximum of damage to both the internal and external legitimacy of Prime Minister. In particular, it is no coincidence that they highlighted Erdoğan’s connections to unsavory regimes and elements abroad. The allegations involve not only highest-level complicity in Iranian sanctions-busting, but collusion with a known terrorist financier. As if that was not enough, a further scandal ensued when police in southern Turkey stopped a truck carrying weapons into Syria. The provincial governor stopped the probe, thereby revealing that the shipment was run by the National intelligence service. Thus, the incident drew attention to long-standing claims of alleged Turkish support for Jihadi groups in Syria.(See May 29, 2013 issue of the Turkey Analyst) The implication is clear: these probes strengthened and perhaps cemented western suspicions of Erdoğan’s collusion with anti-Western regimes and Islamic extremists, thus serving to further weaken Western support for his government.
Yet the crisis of the Turkish state also draws legitimate attention to the role of the Gülen movement in the state. Erdoğan’s ambitions forced the movement’s hand, and prompted it to come out to fight first to safeguard its position in the state bureaucracy, and ultimately for its survival. Nonetheless, as a result, the movement can no longer plausibly claim to be a non-political force solely engaged in civil society. Over coming months, the movement – which has already seen itself compelled to become more transparent than before – is likely to be the subject of further debate and analysis.
CONCLUSIONS: The outcome of the crisis is not yet in sight; arguably, its impact on Turkey’s economy, as well as on the outcome of the March 30 local elections are going to be of decisive importance. Already, the Turkish lira has slipped 20 percent against the U.S. dollar since last May, and the Istanbul stock market has lost 30 percent of its value. Capital is now fleeing Turkey, endangering Erdoğan’s flagship achievement, Turkey’s sustained decade-long growth. In an environment where emerging economies are already vulnerable to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s tapering of its bond-buying program, Turkey could face a real economic crisis. Whether and when that materializes will also affect the AKP’s performance in the coming elections.
Erdoğan clearly aims to benefit from his campaigning skills and receive enough votes in the local elections to claim a continued popular mandate. Generally speaking, this would require holding on to Istanbul and securing 40 percent of the vote. The point, however, is that those who are challenging him do not appear to seek the party’s demise. Indeed, to the extent that the Gülen movement has a discernible political goal, it seems to be to displace Erdoğan from the party leadership, but to sustain the AKP’s dominance of Turkish politics under a leadership that would be respectful of the movement’s interests.
The Gezi protests and the corruption probes have already rendered Erdoğan’s ambitions of a presidential system moot. On this issue, Erdoğan no longer commands the loyalty of his own party. This implies that his choices are reduced to two: overturning internal party rules to allow him to seek a fourth term; or to seek the presidency under the current constitution. Neither scenario seems palatable. Under the former, Erdoğan would appear to put personal ambition first, further undermining his domestic legitimacy. He would be likely fail to repeat his 2011 accomplishment of achieving 50 percent of the vote, and thus open the door to an internal challenge to his power. Under the latter scenario, Erdoğan would, just like Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel before him, soon fail to control his party from the presidential palace.
All of this assumes that Erdoğans remain in power long enough to contest these elections. Given that more damaging revelations are certain to emerge in coming weeks and months, a growing split within the AKP that removes Erdoğan from the helm cannot be excluded.
In the final analysis, the Gülen movement has already helped thwart Erdoğan’s ambitions to one-man rule. Turkey is already entering what is gradually resembling a succession struggle, one that is certain to be very eventful. The main question at this point is the amount of damage that Erdoğan will inflict on Turkey before departing. He has already inflicted considerable damage on Turkey’s international reputation, the institutions of the state, and on its economy. As a result, Turkey is no longer a stable bulwark in an unstable region, but a problem in its own right. It is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Svante E. Cornell is the Editor-in-Chief of the Turkey Analyst, and Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.