By Jim Colella, freelance journalist and blogger, resident in Turkey since 2005
The epic corruption scandal currently gripping Turkey, not to mention international headlines, is nothing less than the collapse of the entire set on a theatre stage. With that elaborately painted background suddenly gone, so too goes the context for the actors occupying the stage. The illusion is shattered, and in Turkey’s present dire case, the notion of a functioning democracy with rule of law has all but disappeared. Except, even with the behind-the-scenes work exposed, the show goes on, and the audience remains distracted by two highly skilled players.
The main actor, of course, is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, consummate in his role after hugging centre stage for more than a decade. The other figure, however, is less well known, at least to the global section of the audience, although many Turks now rub their hands with glee as Fethullah Gülen – long thought to be lurking backstage – is firmly thrust into the spotlight.
For those late to the show, I’ll bring you up to speed. As the current synopses tell us, the big crash came last month with police raids netting dozens in a corruption probe, including the sons of three cabinet ministers and the CEO of a state-run bank, caught red-handed (it would seem) with $4.5 million stuffed into shoe boxes in his home. The sheer magnitude of the situation meant those three ministers were, after ten days, forced to resign by the prime minister himself, in a belated effort to contain the damage.
Another two MPs have also resigned in related events. That total of five scalps is no mean feat, indeed it’s unprecedented since the ruling Justice and Development Party, better known as the AKP or AK Party by its Turkish acronym, first swept to power in 2002. With the scandal engulfing his party’s reputation, the fiery prime minister fired back just as hard. Pointing to the upcoming elections – local and presidential this year, parliamentary in the next – Erdoğan labelled it all a “dirty plot” and a “judicial coup” designed to sully his party’s name. If you hear giggles among the audience, that’s because in Turkish, “ak” means “white” or “pure”.
Erdoğan’s ever-wagging finger also pointed at Gülen, an influential Islamic cleric and former ally turned foe, self-exiled to Pennsylvania in the US since 1999. The 73-year-old preacher heads a vast movement, whose adherents brand as “Hizmet” (meaning “the Service”), but whose opponents refer to as “cemaat” (“the Community”), often used by those same detractors in a derogatory sense. For our purposes here, it is easier to just stick to the Gülen Movement, whose numbers stretch into a shadowy uncountable sum, enough to infect much of the Turkish police force and judiciary. Hence, Erdoğan’s coup reference; a much overused word by the elected AKP, but somewhat understandable when you consider the four previous governments ousted in actual military coups d’etat since 1960.
The very same threat also raised its head for the AKP in more recent times, leading to the landmark Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials leaving military top brass behind bars. Given Turkey’s troubled history, this led to plaudits at home and abroad for Erdoğan raising, so it went, democratic standards. That said, in light of the current graft probe, the hastily rewritten script now credits the Gülen-Erdoğan alliance with defanging today’s military, with those former allies now at each other’s throats. With the latest ironic twist, Erdoğan is now charging the same Gülenist police and prosecutors who put the generals in jail with seeking to topple his government.
The same script will tell you that a war between the two sides has been brewing for quite some time, with splits over Erdoğan’s autocratic style along with a number of other key issues. The point of no return came, however, with the revelation last September of Erdoğan’s intent to shut down university exam prep schools. In essence, this open declaration of war was not just about economics for Gülen followers who own a large fare of these schools. Already wealthy, this was an existential threat in terms of influence, one that recruits present and, more importantly, future students into the Gülenist fold.
Enough to make your head spin, isn’t it? Which is how Turkish politics usually ticks over, at least with Erdoğan at the helm. To give you an idea of the dizzying heights it all has now reached, at the time of writing, some 600 police officers have been dismissed from their posts, most notably the police chiefs of Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir – Turkey’s three biggest cities – according to recent reports in the Hürriyet Daily News. (And just to put Erdoğan’s democratic standards into even clearer perspective, not one police officer, let alone chief, was dismissed in the aftermath of last year’s nationwide anti-government protests, roundly condemned for police brutality which saw thousands injured and at least six dead).
Erdoğan’s purge also extends to having the key prosecutor removed from the probe targeting minister’s sons, with yet another prosecutor removed on a second probe implicating his own son, Bilal Erdoğan. There’s also a proposed draft bill which, if passed, would seriously curtail the independence of the judiciary. And the government’s justification for all this blatant interference in the separation of powers – all of a sudden, after 12 years in power– is the existence of a “parallel state” (i.e., the Gülen Movement).
What a show!
But before anyone in the audience starts laughing at the spectacle Erdoğan is making of his own country, the funniest move is yet to come. The timing of his theatrical production couldn’t be more relevant. The local elections are in March. But why now? Why not before?
In fact, as long ago as 2004 when, on 30 December of that year, former US Ambassador to Ankara Eric Edelman wrote: “As we understand it from a contact in the intel directorate of Turkish National Police, a continuing investigation into [then AKP Istanbul provincial chairman] Muezzinoglu’s extortion racket and other activities has already produced evidence incriminating Erdogan. In our contacts across Anatolia we have detected no willingness yet at the grassroots level to look closely at Erdogan or the party in this regard, but the trend is a time bomb.”
Of course, former Ambassador Eric Edelman’s insight was only meant for private consumption. As dated as it is, classified cable 04ANKARA7211 (to use its more formal title) only saw light of day a few years ago thanks to rebel publisher WikiLeaks. And it wasn’t the only nor last American cable sent out of Turkey to refer to corruption. Other than pointing to a ridiculously long fuse, it does raise the most obvious question of what took the police so long – after two more electoral successes for Erdoğan – to show up at the government’s door?
Unless Edelman, his Turkish intel, as well as his successor ambassadors were all collectively wrong in their assessment, the best answer is that infamous Erdoğan-Gülen marriage of convenience that has lasted so long. Indeed, as a strong indicator of just how convenient it must have been, another cable from Edelman in January 2004 talks of Erdoğan’s own worry about the “level of influence” the Gülen Movement had, even then, on the government.
While Erdoğan’s ‘why now’ theatrics are chiefly tailored for his own domestic loyal electorate – which, the polls say is at a sufficient number to bring the AKP out on top again – there is, perversely, a ring of truth about it. Erdoğan’s other resounding success story of the last 11 years, other than the economy bringing him electoral wins, is consolidating a firm grip on a vast swathe of the media.
But the highest circulation daily in Turkey is actually the pro-Gülen Zaman, which now leads the pack of anti-government media, kicking Erdoğan where it undoubtedly hurts. With their inside knowledge gained from their old alliance with the AKP, their slew of revelations, leaks, and embellishments matches the same tactics of the pro-government media. Equally, however, their own hypocrisy matches Erdoğan’s denial of corruption within his own ranks. For staying silent, or even covering up over the past decade, makes them just as complicit. The audience should note that aiding and abetting criminals is also a crime. And there’s no such thing as a victimless crime. This one has 74.5 million of them – the entire Turkish population.
Predictions for future scenes, from the best of the pundits, include calling a snap general election to maximize Erdoğan’s chances at the ballot box. There’s also the possibility of the AKP’s self-imposed three-term rule being lifted to allow Erdoğan to stay on as PM, if his ascendancy to an enhanced presidential role becomes, as it increasingly is, remote. Expect also more scandal, more purges, maybe more resignations, and certainly more protests. Over 20,000 people have already hit the streets of the nation’s capital, as reported by Al Jazeera on 11 January, chanting “revolution will clean this filth” and “they are thieves”. Given the scale of injury and death in last year’s anti-government protests, expect more of that too. It is, after all, an election year.
Enjoy the show.