Rift with party fuels crisis at heart of Turkey’s government

Erdogan has fallen out with his best political pal. P Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

The long-standing and, hitherto, powerful government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is under unprecedented pressure after one of the strangest fortnights in recent Turkish political history. Some key allies and their families have been detained and charged with corruption in an episode the prime minister’s enemies are calling God’s punishment and which the prime minister himself is calling a “dirty operation”.

The army has been forced to take the unprecedented step of denying that it would intervene in the crisis which has seen three cabinet ministers resign after their sons were arrested and charged with corrupt dealing. The corruption investigation, which began a fortnight ago, has targeted leading businessmen and officials as well as the head of the state bank, all said to be engaged in corrupt practices, bribery, tender-rigging and illicit money transfers to Iran.

The crisis has seen huge protests on the streets of Istanbul, which has been read as an attempt to push the army into taking action, perhaps in the form of a military coup. But this rumour was quashed in an official statement yesterday on the army’s website. “The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) does not want to be involved in political debates. On the other hand, the TSK will keep on closely following the developments regarding its corporate identity and the legal positions of its members,” the statement read.

The episode, which has brought crisis to the heart of Erdogan’s decade-long government, is being widely seen as the result of a rift between the prime minister and his erstwhile strong supporter, Turkish Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen.

Fractured friendship

Gülen is no stranger to politics, power and intrigue. The leader of one of the most influential social and religious movements in the world, he has long been a force to be reckoned with on the Turkish political landscape. While alliances between the top brass of Turkish politics and religious movements in Turkey are nothing new, with even the military juntas of the past stoking up support among the religious masses, the ties between Gülen’s movement and the governing party of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have always been particularly strong.

Yet as the rift between the movement and the government continue to grow, with the public clash over the closure of Gülen-sponsored university prep schools just the tip of the iceberg, Gülen and Erdoğan will need all of their political acumen to set the relationship back on track – or face a lose-lose situation for them both.

Grim: some very defensive body language on display. AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici

Resident in the US since 1999, Gülen’s conciliatory approach to Islam and focus on contemporary global issues has set him apart from other Islamic scholars in the post-9/11 era, and won him far-reaching support around the world. In Turkey and Central Asia, and increasingly in developing countries in Africa, the movement’s focus on duty and charity - manifested through its network of schools and hospitals for deprived communities - has won support as grassroots level. Today the thousands of schools the movement runs worldwide provide some of the most attractive facilities available, offering high quality teaching and opening doors to scholarships in Turkey for the brightest students.

And as Erdoğan knows, when the Gülen movement mobilises, things begin to happen. The movement has played a pivotal role in all of the election victories of the AK Party since 2002. Its followers have been loyal AKP voters, utilising their resources and networks for the kind of door-to-door campaigning that ensures a strong electoral showing and provides an unequivocal mandate for change (the AKP received nearly 50% of the vote at the last elections).

With the support of the Gülen movement, Erdoğan has been able to curtail the role of the army in politics, transforming civil-military relations in the country. Some argue that this has knocked on the head the “deep-state” of the 1990s, run by the troika of the army, bureaucracy and judiciary. Yet others argue that the AKP has dealt with the problem of the “deep-state” only to have it morph into something equally challenging to democracy – a “parallel state” run by the AKP in collaboration with Gülen followers, such is the influence of the Gülen movement on policy-making.

But now there are signs that the golden age in the AKP and Gülen movement partnership is coming to an end. Erdoğan’s heady success in his decade of leadership has seen Turkey’s performance improve across a range of measures - economic growth, human rights practice and foreign policy. Few would take these achievements away from Erdoğan, but Turks of many walks of life are growing increasingly frustrated - and vocal - about his perceived arrogance. The secularists argued that he stopped listening to his opponents long ago (witness Gezi Park). The Gulen movement might also argue that he has now stopped listening to his friends.

The Gülen movement showed a high level of disapproval with the government over both relations with Israel and the Gezi Park protests. The first public crack in relations has been over the role of Hakan Fidan, head of the country’s intelligence agency, with the movement pursuing his removal from office through the judiciary. But none of these events could have prepared the country for the events of December 17

Night of the long knives

In a co-ordinated operation organised by the Istanbul police in the early hours of the morning, more than 50 people were arrested – including the sons of three cabinet members, one of whom was minister of Interior. The alleged offenses were smuggling gold, money laundering and corruption in public procurement bids. The operation has been considered as the Gülen movement’s response to the government’s attempt to close down its university prep schools. During the past few weeks there has been talk of confrontation between the two sides, including threats to release video tapes of high-level AKP members in compromising positions. Still, not many would have guessed that the situation would escalate to such unprecedented levels.

Erdoğan argues that his party is facing a “dirty operation” just before the upcoming local elections in March 2014, though publically the AKP continues to revere the Gülen movement. It isn’t clear yet what the next step in the clash of the titans will be. Abraham Lincoln once argued that we destroy our enemies when we make them our friends. Gulen himself would likely have approved. These days though he and Erdoğan are showing that the inverse is probably truer -– we can easily destroy our friends when we make them our enemies.