Turkish Corruption Scandal – Dirty Plot or Erdogan’s Endgame?

If you live in Turkey you would need to have made a recent visit to the moon or perhaps had your head buried deep in sand not to have noticed a massive political crisis for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which began in the middle of last month. The Turkish lira has also lost almost 25% since last May causing inflation to surge, while foreign investment capital seems to have fled as the perception of a government lurching from one crisis to another, gains greater currency.
The political fallout from a corruption probe into four government ministers, several businessmen and bankers, has become the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government’s 11-year rule. Although, the ever combative Mr Erdogan was quick to retaliate, condemning the probe as a “dirty plot” to topple his government and said he would not permit “a state within a state”, a phrase apparently referring to the movement led by the highly influential Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999.

Mr Gulen is said to have millions of followers across the world and extensive influence over the state bureaucracy, the police force and the judiciary in Turkey. Erdogan’s government accuses his movement, referred to as “Cemaat” in Turkey, of being behind the graft probe – a charge Mr Gulen denies. However, the ongoing crisis in Turkey is increasingly seen as not only a corruption investigation, allegedly involving the closest circles of Mr Erdogan, but a bitter power struggle between the AKP and Cemaat.

Many people here believe Cemaat’s support was crucial in the AKP’s three consecutive election victories. Also that they helped the government curb the powers of the military through their influence within the judiciary with the help of high-profile cases like Ergenekon and Sledgehammer, which saw hundreds of military officers – including the previous chief of staff of the armed forces – jailed. However, the current thinking is that as the “common enemy” was forced to relinquish its historical power the AKP and Cemaat started to become wary of each other’s influence to the point that some commentators now believe a new fight to hold the ropes of power in Turkey may have begun.

So where did it all go wrong? Just twelve months ago, Turkey’s effervescent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to be on top of the world, at least his world. He was putting his final touches to a new constitution under which he’d be transformed into a president with executive powers at home at the same time as some believed his diplomatic overtures to the new leaders, following the Arab spring, almost gave him the spiritual authority of a Muslim Caliph abroad. Indeed Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman dream” appeared to have succeeded enough for Turkish voters to almost give his AK Party a lock on power for the foreseeable future.

However, in the past few weeks Erdogan has looked more like someone fighting for his political life, with his “neo-Ottoman dream” seemingly in tatters, while all the talk in political circles in Istanbul, home to almost a quarter of Turkey’s population, is leaning towards how to ease Erdogan off the stage and into history. Why this sudden turn of fortune? The short answer, according to an international press, not hamstrung by the governments burgeoning restrictions on domestic media freedom, seems to be hubris.

Erdogan claimed his electoral success came from his understanding of the root cause of Turkey’s relative underdevelopment and almost permanent political crisis was a clash of ideologies. The Kemalists, supporters of Ataturk (the founder of the republic), had turned his legacy of a secular state into a rigid ideology that ignored the inevitable diversity of a complex society such as modern Turkey. At the other end of the spectrum, pious Muslims regarded secularism— that is to say, the separation of the mosque and state — as a direct attack on their religion. This pattern of Kemalist-Islamist power struggle prevailed for decades until the AKP finally won its first general-election in 2002.

Erdogan’s “de-ideologization” method succeeded in giving Turkey political stability (especially immunity against coups), and paved the way for economic development. Over the last 10 years, Turkey has tamed its once-notorious inflation, revived its moribund currency, created more than 8 million new jobs and, with average economic growth rates of 6 percent to 7 percent, joined the ranks of emerging industrial powers. More importantly, in the eyes of many Turks, Erdogan managed to drastically reduce corruption, the endemic bane of Turkish politics.

However, in 2011, seemingly intoxicated by Turkey’s success in his decade of power, Erdogan began acting out of character and started behaving in a different, ideological way. Firstly he began purging the military of officers indifferent if not hostile to religion, and replacing them with those with AKP connections. He then started purging the judiciary by promoting Islamist judges in place of the secularist ones pushed into early retirement. His next target was the big business elite, which had formed over decades with army support, while juicy government contracts were granted to people with AKP links — and, as recent revelations appear to show, even to members of his own family and party entourage.

If all that wasn’t enough for a perfect storm, Erdogan unveiling of a gargantuan project to transform Istanbul into “the greatest city of Islamic civilization” was instrumental in triggering the Gezi Park riots, which so tarnished his and Turkey’s reputation last summer. The project was part of his grand scheme to “breed a new generation of pious Turks.” So Erdogan, who once marketed himself as a leader who rejected ideological dogma, has gradually become regarded as the most ideologically dogmatic leader modern Turkey has ever seen. And despite having won his early support by arguing that a government should administer a country rather than engage in social and cultural engineering, he now talks of “creating the new Turkish man” in terms that some of his enemies would have us believe, recall the rantings of men like Hitler, Stalin and Mao and their versions of the “new man.”

In my years in Turkey, the one thing I have learned about Turkish politics is that nothing is ever quite what it seems. So Mr Erdogan may well be around for quite some time yet. However, perhaps the one certainty the deepening political storm has for him, is that he risks not only losing a good chunk of his AKP base, like President Abdullah Gul and his faction, but his dream of ruling Turkey for another 20 years now strikes a growing number of Turks, whether they are secular or religious, as a potential nightmare scenario.


One thought on “Turkish Corruption Scandal – Dirty Plot or Erdogan’s Endgame?

  1. If he’s gonna go, I hope he has the sense to go sooner rather than later, while there is something left of the Turkish economy. I am one of those unfortunate fools who bought Lira last year and forgot about it.

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