By Sabahat Khan
A storm has been brewing in Turkey ever since the Gezi Park protests in 2012 brought out thousands of street demonstrators on an unprecedented scale against the Erdogan-led government. According to Turkish Prime Minister Reccip Tayeb Erdogan, beginning with the Gezi Park protests, opaque foreign lobbies have been actively working in collusion with “deep state” actors inside Turkey to foment socio-political unrest and destabilize his government. Previously, Erodgan has lashed out at an “interest rate lobby” for attempting to derail the Turkish economy through driving up the cost of borrowing – regarded to be a reference to pro-Israeli global financiers – in retaliation for the tough stance his government took against the Israel and its blockade of Gaza. After coming to power, the AK Party government normalized inflation from highs of 60 percent, halved sovereign debt (the servicing for which once took up 80 percent of government revenue), and repaid an IMF bailout to reduce the cost of borrowing for Turkey until the protests of Gezi Park erupted. Mainstream media inside and outside Turkey have now been reporting on a rift that has finally spilled into the public domain between PM and AK Party leader Erdogan and Gulenists (also known as the Gulen Group or the Gulen Movement – followers of the reclusive but powerful self-exiled Islamic scholar Imam Fetullah Gulen).
In December 2013, a corruption scandal engulfed the Turkish government as ministers and close relatives were among 52 suspects arrested on corruption charges following raids by Turkish police. Turkish police also confiscated millions of dollars in cash related to bribes reportedly involving tens of millions of dollars. The arrests exposed how senior government ministers were potentially involved in bribery and corruption under the nose of PM Erdogan, known to embrace tight control of the party and party decision-making. The arrests were particularly damaging because the AK Party’s electoral success is pinned to its economic performance (when growth has dipped in the past, so have poll ratings for the government), which it has successfully delivered through pro-business and anti-corruption policies. More ominously, that PM Erdogan, as well as officials in the prosecution service and the police who report to him, were kept from knowing anything about the police swoops until after they were conducted has convinced Erdogan and his inner circle that opaque but powerful forces are involved in a ‘dirt plot.’ The raids involved different, unconnected investigations but were executed on the same day seemingly by design to maximize damage to the government. The timing, with local-body elections approaching in 2014, and general and presidential elections in 2015, has fired up suspicions in Erdogan and his inner circle that they are the targets of an orchestrated campaign.
Main Players and Background
The alleged international conspiracy is said to involve pro-Israel elements of the global financier and media worlds seeking to banish Erdogan from office, with local actors embedded in state institutions collaborating in unison or collusion – whether Gulenists, secularists or, somehow and strangely, both. One of the investigations involved a state-owned bank called Halkbank, which was involved in massive money transfers – reportedly involving over US$100 billion – through Russia and China to Iran. It is this Iranian link that has fuelled speculation within Erdogan’s circles that Israelis and, or, Americans are involved behind the scenes. The U.S. ambassador was personally drawn into the scandal (PM Erdogan threatened his expulsion, and rumors are that the Turkish government has pondered declaring him persona non grata for some time) following reports he had implied consequences for the Turkish administration after it failed to heed calls for Halkbank to end financial ties with Iran. On the ground, Erdogan has accused state-embedded actors of carrying out the “dirty operation” – a broad-brush reference to the secularist ‘old guard,’ Erkongen (the traditional “deep state” enemy opposed to AK Party-style political forces), and in the current context, especially Gulenists. Ergenekon is a secret secular-nationalist organization in Turkey with members drawn heavily from the military and security services, popularly believed to have been formed with the support of the CIA, that is accused of terrorism and planning to overthrow democratic governments.
On the face of it, an axis of Gulenists and Israel or pro-Israeli international lobbies seems unlikely but the Erdogan clique believes that Gulenists, wittingly or not, have orchestrated the recent raids for their own interests. Those interests are difficult to define – they may be simply to root out corruption which is regarded to be out of character for the AK Party, to check an increasingly assertive – some would say authoritarian – Erdogan by raising the stakes for upcoming elections, as retaliation for government plans to close prep schools which employ as many as 100,000 Turks part of the Hizmet (Service) organization belonging to Iman Gulen, or all of the above. While Imam Gulen has denied any personal involvement or knowledge of the recent scandal, he is known to have the support of a vast number of senior officials in the judiciary, prosecution service, and police – and the theory is that these supporters are responsible for the recent scandal. Imam Gulen is the driving force and figurehead behind the cultural revival of Islam in Turkey – his efforts through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s to re-empower a dormant and marginalized conservative Muslim majority in Turkey essentially laid the foundation for a party with Islamic roots like the AK Party to come to office. Since its first election victory in 2002 when it won 35 percent of the vote, the AK Party has grown, with the support of Gulen and his followers, and off the back of good governance and low tolerance for corruption to deliver unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, securing over 50 percent of the vote in the last election.
It is difficult if not impossible to put a firm estimation on the influence of Gulenists on voting patterns, their spread and influence in official positions, in education, business, media, and religious institutions, but Imam Gulen is known to have millions of followers and sympathizers spread across all walks of life in Turkey. Gulenists embraced the AK Party from the beginning, building an alliance that systemically weeded out military interference from Turkish politics and extinguished the threat of military coups. With Turkey re-emerging as a trans-regional economic, cultural, and political power, Gulenists seek a different trajectory for Turkey than the one Erdogan has been steering the country towards recently. It is understood that Imam Gulen was critical of the Turkish government policy towards the Israeli embargo of Gaza, particularly after violence by Israeli commandos killed activists travelling on a humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza. Gulenists are also unhappy with the Turkish position on Syria, as it swung from potential mediator to an actively anti-regime position – representing a departure from the “zero-problems with neighbors” policy and threatening strategic blowback costs for Turkish influence and strategy. Other differences also include direct negotiations with the PKK, a designated terrorist organization, and re-engaging post-Mursi Egypt. In short, Imam Gulen is regarded to favor a Turkish foreign policy designed to secure EU membership over one which sucks Turkey into the zero-sum games of Middle Eastern power politics.
Grievances held by Gulenists appear to be increasingly specific to Erdogan rather than the AK Party. Erdogan has become more aggressive in pushing his own policies over consensus views – so while he remains hugely popular, he is also becoming more divisive. These current exchanges may be maneuvering to raise the stakes for Erdogan’s anticipated move for the presidency in 2015. Erdogan wishes to create a more powerful presidency through constitutional reform, and if possible would like to see a PM without the political standing to mount a challenge against a future presidency with more executive powers. Gulenists are known to favor a return to active politics by Abdullah Gul, with quid pro quo exchange of the presidency for the prime minister’s office with Erdogan. Abdullah Gul is known to be keen to return to national politics but has stated that assigning more powers to the presidency is off the agenda. As a founding member of AK Party, Abdullah Gul has an important future role to play – being popular with Gulenists, his appointment as PM combined with Erdogan moving out of active politics to the presidency in its current form would lead to an AK Party version 2.0 with a softer leadership and a return to an EU- rather than Middle East-centric foreign policy agenda. Alternatively, if Erdogan can engineer his move to an empowered presidency then he would become the undisputed heavyweight of Turkish politics for at least another decade – a scenario that may not be acceptable for Gulenists, who Erdogan seems to have decided to rein in once and for all.
With the strong performance his government has delivered, Erdogan remains hugely popular despite the recent scandal – the cost at the ballot box of the recent scandal will be limited rather than decisive. Erdogan also remains the biggest, strongest figure in his AK Party with no real challenger to his dominance so his exit from active politics seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. It is not entirely clear how much of the recent turmoil is genuinely down to Gulenists, or to the politics of Erdogan that have alienated them, and if this is being overplayed but observers of Turkish politics have long recognized the propensity for damage as battles for political prestige and influence between the forces of political Islam, with Erdogan as the head, and cultural Islam, with Imam Gulen as the head, lingered beneath the surface. It is not a foregone conclusion that Erdogan and Imam Gulen will confront each other with their full might, but alongside preparing his supporters Erdogan has responded by sacking and reassigning hundreds of police officers including department chiefs and prosecutors following the anti-corruption probe against his government. Erdogan has also come out to support a retrial of convicted military generals belonging to Ergenekon and involved in Operation Sledgehammer – a plot to overthrow the government – after one of his advisors suggested the officers had been framed by the same prosecutors said to be involved in the recent corruption probes against the government.
It appears that Erdogan is clearing the way for a power alliance with the military to roll back Gulenists – whose support, ironically, was once crucial for Erdogan and his AK Party in driving out political interference from the military. Also, by linking the recent scandal primarily to foreign lobbies, Erdogan has both appealed to the conservative Muslim bloc and left an exit strategy for Gulenists. If a Gulenist retreat is not forthcoming however then Erdogan is preparing for a bigger battle – in addition to carrying through his plans to close prep schools, one of the main triggers for the recent tensions, he will discredit Gulenists by linking them to foreign lobbies, target Gulenists in government, media and business (the government has already profiled thousands of civil servants and is said to have extensive dossiers on Gulenists and sympathizers) by inviting the Turkish military to support such an effort. Interestingly, a secret document from 2004 leaked to the media earlier this year purportedly exposed a deal between the Turkish military and a newly-elected AK Party to confront the Gulen movement and reduce its power and influence in Turkey. The AK Party did not deny the authenticity of the document, downplaying its importance (it was signed when the military still had powerful influence in Turkish politics and when the AK Party was new in office), but proceeded to charge the journalist who leaked the document. Gulenists are now also campaigning against what they say are efforts to make the judiciary subordinate to the government. Apparently Gulenists, too, are preparing for an emerging bigger battle – a battle where the outcome is difficult to predict but which promises major controversies, unrest, and serious implications for Turkish foreign policy in the months ahead.
Sabahat Khan, Senior Analyst, INEGMA