A corruption scandal has broken out in Turkey. At the epicenter of the scandal is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Over 50 people have been detained on suspicion of exceeding official authority, taking bribes, and merging authority and business (according to various data, between 52 and 84 people). The greatest resonance in the Turkish media was caused by the arrests of the sons of cabinet members. The hidden political motives for the revelations of corruption in the ranks of the ruling party are intriguing as well…
The scandal poses the greatest threat to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, the leader of the AKP. He has always taken the position of an uncompromising fighter against corruption within the government system and outside of it, and now he himself has been affected by the corruption investigations.
Commentators have proposed various explanations for the surfacing of a topic which compromises Erdogan and his party. They name a flare-up in the relations between two old friends (or rather, former friends) as the most likely detonator for the scandal. This refers to Erdogan and Fetullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric and founder of the Hizmet movement. The latter now lives in the American state of Pennsylvania, from which he continues to rule his «mini-empire», which includes media outlets and educational institutions (1), and influence social and political processes in Turkey.
At the dawn of Erdogan's political career, as he was just starting to ascend the Olympus of power, there was complete harmony between him and Gulen. Gulen is an advocate of the systematic Islamicization of Turkey. His theological views combined with the ambitions of a political leader appealed to Erdogan. Gulen supported Erdogan in all the previous national elections. The flare-up in relations, Turkish commentators note, became noticeable in the first few months of 2012, when Erdogan and Gulen disagreed over several issues at once. The most sensitive among these for the «Gulenites» was the government's intention to close private schools. Approximately a quarter of such educational institutions in Turkey are closely tied with the Hizmet movement (they are often called «Gulen schools»). By autumn 2013 things had come to the point of direct confrontation. The Erdogan government moved from words to actions; several schools were forced to close their doors. This was a direct challenge to Erdogan's former ally. In response, the «Pennsylvania exile» brought all his influence to bear. Warnings to those in power appeared on the pages of Zaman, one of the most-read newspapers in Turkey, which is under Gulen's control.
There are plenty of Gulen supporters in the ruling party, the corridors of power, and especially in the judicial and law enforcement systems of Turkey. If one is to believe Turkish journalists, it was pro-Gulen public prosecutors who initiated the corruption investigation. After Erdogan came to power in 2003, he promoted an entire cohort of personnel to responsible posts, including in the law enforcement system. For all these years Erdogan's appointees have given no cause to doubt their loyalty to him. However, the flare-up between the prime minister and the influential Islamic authority figure has shown that the vector of loyalty can change.
At the same time, the agitation in the system of power built by Erdogan cannot be explained only by the conflict between Erdogan and Gulen. On the lower levels of the AKP there are growing sentiments in favor of a generational change in party leaders. In addition, some party members support the nomination of Abdullah Gul, the current president of Turkey, for another presidential term next year. The coming elections are to be held by direct voting for the first time (previously the president of Turkey was elected by the parliament). This part of the political elite sees Gul as a more level-headed statesman than the impulsive Erdogan, whose emotional disposition has recently led to several incidents in Turkey's relations with foreign partners.
The nascent opposition to Erdogan and his circle has become especially difficult to restrain since summer 2013, when a wave of protests swept across the largest Turkish cities. The trigger was the clearing of Istanbul's Gezi Park and the building of a new shopping center on its territory. The authorities were able to localize the protests and prevent them from expanding beyond large cities. However, the demonstrations had deeper causes than environmental protection. Amid the complete removal of the Turkish army from positions of power and a series of prosecutions against senior generals, forces for which Erdogan's name was associated with total control over the media, a simulation of democratic reforms, and most importantly, the creeping Islamicization of Turkey, the aims and implementation of which has caused sharp disagreement even in the ranks of the ruling AKP, have become more active.
The army returned to its barracks, and civilian activists took to the streets; fertile ground appeared for all the conflicts in society and the government to come to the surface. Up until then Gulen and his followers had been opposing Erdogan tacitly; the corruption scandal essentially was the first real manifestation of this group's capabilities. They sent Erdogan the signal that if he wants a «smear war», he'll get it. But first, let him think about what he will bring to the new elections next year (municipal and presidential). This is the somewhat simplified, but enlightening leitmotif of the current conflict between the prime minister and the preacher. The opinion of Turkish analyst Murat Yetkin is also worthy of attention: Gulen's supporters in the AKP are irritated by Erdogan's claims to ideological monopoly in the party and sole authority in the country.
Erdogan reacted to the attacks on him and his team in his typical harsh style. The wave of arrests initiated by pro-Gulen public prosecutors was followed by a counter-wave of indictments. Now the public prosecutors and policemen themselves have fallen afoul of Turkish justice. Five Istanbul police officials were relieved of their duties a day after their subordinates made arrests on suspicion of corruption. Something similar could be observed in the «challenge-response» actions of Erdogan and his cabinet at the very beginning of the demonstrations in defense of Gezi Park in Istanbul. First Erdogan brought down the full force of Istanbul's police on the demonstrators, but then moved away from repressions. He started to hold a dialog with the protestors, albeit only in the intervals between firing water cannons at them and attacking them with tear gas. Something tells me that this time, too, after the energy of the conflict has dropped off, the various groups in power will start to resolve the conflicts through negotiation. Essentially, Erdogan has no other option, considering the upcoming elections; escalation of the conflict is not in his interests.
Much will become clearer closer to the elections for the head of Turkey's largest city in March 2014. The country's main financial streams are concentrated in Istanbul, and over 18% of Turkey's 75 million people live there. Along with other metropolises of Western Turkey, the city has become a hotbed for protest sentiments with an anti-Erdogan tone. Victory in the Istanbul elections would serve as a stimulus for the current prime minister and his team to strengthen their power in the country. And then Gulen and his mudslinging will move to the ranks of less dangerous opponents to the impulsive yet charismatic Erdogan.
(1) According to Turkish sources, Gulen's «mini-empire» includes 18 places of worship, 89 specialized religious schools, 207 trading companies, 373 teacher's colleges and around 500 dormitories in Turkey. Outside of Turkey there are 6 religious universities, 236 high schools, 2 elementary schools, 2 Turkish language study centers, 6 university preparation courses and 21 dormitories operating under the auspices of Gulen and his movement. They also publish 14 journals and broadcast on 2 national radio stations and the satellite television channel Samanyolu TV.