History, as important as it is alarming, is happening in Turkey. At the center of it all is the fate of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has presided over the Turkish political scene for over a decade. As head of state, he has considerably changed both the country and the whole region. But increasingly, the question must be asked: is his increasingly authoritarian rule nearing an end?
This is still unclear, but after concentrating power, Erdoğan has put nearly every branch of the Turkish state under his influence and command. Until recently, many observers, including Erdoğan himself, thought that nothing would stop him from accumulating as much power as he wanted. Increasingly, Erdoğan reminds this observer of Phaethon, the character from Greek mythology who thought he could ride Apollo’s chariot with the sun inside it. Instead, this reckless boy of the sun caused chaos down on earth—sometimes fires or floods, other times ice storms—until eventually Zeus grew tired of him and knocked him out of the sky with a thunderclap.
A mega-scandal of corruption
Since December 17, 2013, stories of government corruption have become commonplace in the Turkish media. These stories have re-shaped the political scene in the country. Initially, high level ministers within Erdoğan’s AKP were implicated in a vast corruption scheme involving their families. As more news has come out, the Prime Minister and his son have been implicated, too.
As appalling as the charges leveled against the government were, Erdoğan’s arrogant response has been even more disturbing. In trying to prevent the investigation from proceeding, he has resorted to authoritarian tactics that threaten the essence of Turkish democracy. His moves have directly impacted the balance of power within the Turkish state. Despite large domestic protests and loud international criticism, Erdoğan seems intent to weaken some of Turkey’s democratic institutions until they perish. Turkey, which could have once served as a model for democratic values in the region, is at risk of lapsing into the kind of state ruled by a lone strong man, and dispensing with any pretenses of democracy.
Meanwhile, in a great irony, the Turkish government is labeling the calls for democracy and rule of law—many of which emanate from so-called Gülenists—a coup d’état. They argue that their autocratic reforms are justified in eliminating the Gülenist network (of Fethullah Gülen) that is, according to the Erdoğanists, embedded in every cell of the state.
Some coercive anti-democratic measures
In response to the corruption revelations, the government has taken extraordinary measures to avoid letting a full investigation take place. Ministers were replaced in Erdoğan’s cabinet. Over 1,000 policemen involved in the investigation were fired; so were the General Prosecutor and assistant prosecutors involved in the case—including the prosecutor who issued an arrest warrant for Erdoğan’s son. Thousands more policemen and government officials—from Istanbul to Ankara to Izmir—have been “re-assigned.”
But Erdoğan wasn’t even finished with the extreme measures: he dissolved the Corruption Investigation Unit at the Treasure Ministry and began a witch hunt within the AKP, purging anyone who dared to criticize him or asked for transparency.
Despite the general consensus, Erdoğan has actually been against the sharing of power since he ascended to the Prime Ministry. He had routinely interfered in private business to gain greater influence, and even before the December 17th investigation, he had moved to limit judicial autonomy, especially when its judgments went against his personal and political interests—be it about the privatization of state business or the new constitutional measures. Since the scandal broke, he has doubled down on consolidating his power, putting enormous pressure on Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, to follow his example. The Prime Minister has drawn up legislation that expands the executive branch’s power, re-organizes MIT to place it under his command, and drawn the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) under executive control.
Furthermore, Erdoğan’s government has approved drastic measures that restrict the information that can be gathered in this mega-scandal’s investigation. With a special directive, the information from the State Police Department of Istanbul is utterly closed to journalists and everyone that asks for information. Also, every single policeman is obliged to inform the officials in Ankara before a felony investigation starts—a real absurdity for every banana republic! And all of this has been undertaken in the name of “reforms”!
They’ve used other measures, too. They’ve dramatically increased internet censorship, and phone calls reveal that the Prime Minister has personally influenced how major news groups report the news. The government pressures and threatens journalists who criticize these anti-democratic steps. For the second year in a row, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalist, surpassing (according to the World Committee of Journalist’s Protection) Russia, China, and Ukraine—even Syria and Iran! These actions have failed the Turkish people’s aspirations for integration into the EU.
It’s ironic, because in the first years of Erdoğan’s rule, his government strived more than any previous government to encourage Turkey’s membership into the EU, culminating in 2005’s opening of accession negotiations. Back then, he strongly supported this process, even using it as a justification to finally marginalize the military on the political scene. But since then, the relationship with the EU has grown worse and worse, especially after the constitutional referendum of 2010, which helped Erdoğan consolidate power.
After years and years of aggressive authoritarianism, during May 2013, Turkey’s citizens were fed up. The resulting Gezi Park protests shook the country to its core. Yet despite this, the government has only cracked down even more, leading many columnists to speculate that Erdoğan was never serious about EU membership. They’ve argued that his actual design was far more Orwellian—the construction of a new empire to rival China and the US. This became even more evident when the Prime Minister asked Vladimir Putin for membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Turkey is far from being a model in the region
The US and EU have tried for a long time to create the idea of Turkey as a success story in the Middle East, meaning that Turkey would be a model for the whole region. This was supposed to show that a western-style democracy with a separation of power and balance of control could prosper and act as a stabilizing force for the region’s other countries. Actually, these “wishes” had already gone pale, including the hope that Turkey could be an example for countries post-Arab Spring or for developing countries in central Asia and the Caucasus. Nowadays, Turkey is more like the Egypt of Mubarak than a country aspiring to enter the EU. Erdoğan’s Turkey is against a broad, well-educated middle class; it has repeatedly cracked down on businesses it deemed too liberal. More disturbingly, it supported Morsi in 2013, and has helped arm the rebel fundamentalist groups in Syria.
Seen from this point of view, the international role of Turkey is now on the verge of collapse. Despite domestic displeasure and strong international condemnation, there still isn’t a well organized opposition in Turkey that is capable of combating Erdoğan’s autocratic power; this favors him and disfavors Turkey. Even last summer’s massive protests didn’t manage to form a clear political direction. Neither the Kemalists of the CHP or the pro-Kurdish BDP were able to utilize the broad displeasure to form a united coalition. They couldn’t even arrange a simple gentleman’s agreement before the recent elections. Furthermore, there’s no sign that any new political opposition will be created anytime soon. The best hope, at this point, seems to be that an opposition front within the AKP separates and helps the other opposition parties consolidate. Unfortunately, when looking at Turkey’s modern political history, there are few examples of politicians or parties displaying the necessary courage to create such a compromise party.
Is Turkey really a story of success, economically speaking?
Compared to many other countries during the global crisis, Turkey could be considered a story of success. Actually, since Erdoğan came into power, the GDP has grown, on average, by 5% a year. The foreign direct investments (FDI) rose distinctly. Inflation was low and the banking sector was consolidated. Turkey’s middle class saw unprecedented growth. The support program the US Federal Reserve instituted to supply the international markets with billions of US dollars every month made it possible for the Turkish economy—US dollar based—to experience a new era of development. The short term investments, supported by this program, made it possible that GDP grew 9% during 2010–2011, before it decreased to 2.2% growth in 2012 and 3% growth in 2013.
What was the reason for this decline? In fact, the scandals, conflicts, and non-democratic laws severely affected the economy and the Turkish Lira. Furthermore, if the logical next step happens, big investors will move away and with their investments suspended, there’s a real risk the country will fall into a recession.
According to the Brookings Institute, what the investigations have revealed is that the companies close to Erdoğan have benefited from the huge development projects, leaving little room for others, not to mention fair competition. In addition, the signals for the deterioration in economy relate also with the perception on the actual changes that eliminate the separation of powers and are touching the rights and freedom in the country, and violating the climate of business in Turkey. Such a climate is not fertile for investment.
Furthermore, such problems have come at the worst time for the Turkish economy—just when the Federal Reserve decided to withdraw its support program and hugely reduce the number of bonds purchased, considering the measure is no longer necessary for the recovered American economy. This decision, among other things, will cause the growth of the US dollar and bank interests in the US, attracting more investors and investments there. Its effects are expected to be visibly felt in Turkey, where this program had many beneficiaries—especially now, when the Turkish economy is more vulnerable and depends mostly on foreign loans. With the closure of this program, the capital circulating in Turkey will “dry up,” leaving behind an economy that depends on free loans and a deficit of more than 60 billion in US dollars. The businesses and consumers that have foreign currency loans will find themselves in front of a mountain of debts.
Also, by the end of 2013, the volume of bank loans had surpassed 450 billion US dollars (a 100% growth since 2010); meanwhile, savings are at their lowest level in the last 30 years. Much of the income from this period of growth fell into the wrong hands or was mischievously consumed (i.e. the massive infrastructure projects), infringing on the basic rules of the market.
Another blow to the economy is that over the last 10 years, the structural reforms in support of the economy are way behind, and have somewhat failed. Even the growing population of Turkey, which has traditionally been an economic advantage, is not anymore; on the contrary, 25 year olds in Turkey have only been educated for an average of 6.5 years, according to the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2013. Another disadvantage is the low percentage of women participating in the labor force.
In 2011, the IMF warned that without reforms in education and the workplace, without more investments in technology, and without fair and equal gender balance in the workplace, Turkey would struggle to grow its GDP more than 3% per year. A similar concern was articulated from the Chairman of The Turkish Chamber of Commerce, M. Yılmaz. According to him, Turkey has entered dangerous waters. He thinks that the law is not as absolute and independent as before; furthermore, the mechanisms of justice ceased to act according to European standards, while the independence of the regulatory institutions was severely damaged. He also raised his voice against political pressure on businesses and media, the penalties and punishments instituted by police and financial authorities, the sudden changes in the procedures of public procurement, etcetera. According to him, such a business climate is unacceptable, especially for foreign investments. But, unfortunately, such concerns were called a “betrayal” by Erdoğan. Actually, as we can see today, Erdonomics’ success cycle is failing, and Turkey will pay the price without immediate structural reforms on both the business and democratic fronts.
The Erdoğan–Gülen clash
For many analysts, the roots of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political orientation can be found in the transnational movement of the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in Egypt in 1928). His non-democratic and autocratic actions are attached to their ideology. Contrasting this, the thinker Fethullah Gülen has preached tolerance and compromise in the spirit of mutual interactions and respect for other civilizations and religions. Unlike Gülen, Erdoğan (a devotee and follower of the ideological line of Necmettin Erbakan) believes that Turkey should move away from the West and try to build up a political, economic, and military alliance with countries of similar population and language. It is a narrow concept of nationhood, based on ideas of “neo-Ottoman” orientation. This ideology believes that Turkish fanaticism and nationalism should be nourished in opposition to western ideology and democracy.
This runs directly counter to Gülen’s preaching and the pragmatist orientations of his movement. His movement supports a critical approach as a fundamental aspect of knowledge and faith. Furthermore, it considers science and mathematics as especially necessary to a devoted Muslim fulfilling his religious and civil duties, and to improve the economic situation of his family and community. In Gülen’s movement, religion plays an integral role in social dialogue.
Some of Erdoğan’s critical mistakes
Under the actual governance of Erdoğan, Turkey has transformed into a country where the independent centers of power, wealth, and democracy are seriously endangered. Today, they face serious threats of usurpation and oppression from the current government. These threats come in the form of threats, unlawful surveillance, blackmail, illegal fines and arrests, and fabricated evidence.
By now, the massive and ongoing scandals, and the many complaints, are widely known. In trying to hastily react to these events, Erdoğan continues to make mistake after mistake, deepening his country’s troubles and his own complicity in them. Many of his people view him as an isolated leader, too authoritarian and removed from the concerns of ordinary people. The man from Kasımpaşa has lost touch with those who brought him to power.
For the first time, there are signs of electoral vulnerability. Apart from a megalomaniac political attitude that damages democracy and the separation of powers, Erdoğan has made another crucial mistake as prime minister. He decided to suppress the mass protests under the pretext of some vast international conspiracy against his government—and Turkey as a whole (in Erdoğan’s mind, his government is Turkey). The Prime Minister claimed a wide array of forces were behind the conspiracy—the US, Germany, Israel, and Gülen and his followers. The Prime Minister and his supporters in the government, media, and elsewhere started a virulent assault against US and EU politics, against some of the most outstanding companies and powerful international media outlets (such as Financial Times, Reuters, CNN, The Economist, etc.). To Erdoğan, anyone who doesn’t support his reactive worldview is considered a soldier of evil, and can even be imprisoned or punished.
Perhaps blinded by his own power, or mislead by his closest advisors, the Prime Minister doesn’t seem to grasp the deep discontent amongst his country—and that his policies are behind that unhappiness. He believes that his aggressive and authoritarian maneuvers will solidify the electoral foundation of his party in future elections—and unfortunately, ensuring the survival of his, and his party’s, political fortunes has become more important than governing for all of Turkey. He seems unaware of the damage he’s done to Turkey’s role on the world stage, especially in its relationship with one of its major strategic allies, the US. Washington and the European capitals couldn’t absorb Erdoğan’s delusions about their role in the supposed plot to bring him down.
Is Gülen Turkey’s savior?
In order to distract from the recent scandals, Erdoğan has made repeated, vitriolic accusations toward his ex-ally, Gülen. Once his arduous supporter—some would even call him a companion on the road toward power—Gülen has come to rigidly oppose Erdoğan’s uncontrolled eagerness for power and his lack of morals. The Erdoğan–Gülen alliance was seriously damaged, especially when, after the Turkish army was removed from the political sphere, Erdoğan soon filled this “vacuum” with cronies who would help him consolidate power. This transformed Gülen into a staunch opponent of the autocratic and authoritarian power of the prime minister. Some observers felt that the clash—between Erdoğan’s more muscular, materialist politics and Gülen’s gentler, more modest approach—was a long time coming.
Due to this conflict, the Islamic liberalization has been severely damaged. The Turkish Islamic model, which represented the supposed marriage between Islam and liberalism, is collapsing from within. The two main components of this pattern, the Gülen community—also known as Hizmet (which means ‘service’ in Turkish)—and Erdoğan’s supporters, are breaking not just each other, but the very idea of Turkish liberalism and Islam working together to spread democracy.
In fact, what makes Turkish Islamism special isn’t merely its more liberal essence, especially considering the other surrounding countries, but its ability to merge Islamic traditions with the pragmatist challenges of a global economy. In some sort of way, in Turkey, liberalism found its voice in the Gülen community, which transformed it into a popular movement. The hope was that this merger could help transform, and democratize, the whole Islamic world. Despite not being political, at its best, the movement could influence institutions, and manage to mobilize the people’s will, joining the traditional Islamic values of Erdoğan’s AKP with the liberal, democratic yearning of the Turkish populace. The failure of that relationship raises questions about the pragmatism and integration of the larger Muslim community into the global economy.
Though Erdoğan has repeatedly called upon empty religious rhetoric to bolster his political fortunes, Gülen is the one who has tried to contribute as an intellectual in the development of modern Islamic thought, working to unify devout faith with liberal and democratic values, the rational sciences, and an open economy.
Erdoğan and his supporters aim to portray the religiously inspired Gülen Movement as a conspiratorial political movement, as a state structure within the state. Moreover, they claim the movement is responsible for making up all the corruption scandals and the subsequent investigations. Today, Erdoğan considers every judge, prosecutor, and policeman as an infiltrated Gülenist.
These accusations are hard to be proven, not to mention that the Hizmet movement consists of free volunteers with no formal membership, and no headquarters or inner hierarchy. This makes the Prime Minister’s claims of some nefarious “state within a state” even more absurd. It’s difficult to imagine such a diffuse movement organizing an elaborate, highly coordinated operation to take down the government—not to mention that it runs counter to Hizmet’s values. At its best, Hizmet’s followers can be considered a civil persona, made up of individuals and foundations that prefer to follow Gülen’s teachings. They are not members of some shadowy cult, as Erdoğan and his followers like to claim.
It’s not surprising that many of the local businessmen, who have seen their fortunes rise during the capitalist revolution that started decades ago, have embraced Gülen’s teachings. Like the market economy, his teachings stress interaction and dialogue between different cultures and faiths, and espouse the virtues of free, democratic processes that afford everyone the same opportunities.
Despite being religiously motivated, Hizmet is a diverse movement that stresses equality. Since he began teaching in the ’60s, as a preacher in a mosque, Gülen has preached against the use of religion as a means to accumulate political power. He totally supported the education of modern sciences in Islamic schools, which was the opposite of the Muslim Brotherhood’s preaching in the Middle East (they advocated for the control of the state by Islam, and for education to be solely religiously based). After his arrest by the Army in the 1970, with some friends’ help, Gülen started offering some private courses to prepare students for college; later on, this movement grew to include high schools and universities, publishing houses for school books, etcetera. Furthermore, after his political asylum request in 1999 in the US, Gülen gradually built up a financial network supported by a vast web of schools and universities. Today, there are more than 1500 such schools, in over 150 different countries, including Albania, Austria, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, the US, etc.
A temporary alliance: two different conceptions
Essentially, since the very start, Gülen promoted democracy, and cultural and religious tolerance; he has nurtured the concerns of every devoted Muslim according to the law, but also served to shape bright ideas serving the future. His own investment in educational institutions, such as private schools, is based in a desire to promote an independent civil society, the development of rational thinking, and a focus on scientific and mathematical knowledge.
It doesn’t seem strange that Gülen and the movement he inspires saw Erdoğan and the AKP as an ally. At that time, they were looking for more economic and religious freedom. At that point, the military and the secular elites had spent decades infringing upon religious freedom, economic development, and democratic reform. Both Gülen and Erdoğan saw an opportunity to make Turkey a more just, democratic society. Unfortunately, after initial progress, once the AKP had been in power for a few years, their priorities began to shift away from democratization and liberalization, and towards self-preservation. They engaged in witch hunts which imprisoned members of the military, the media, and the business community under questionable pretenses. Incredibly, many believe that the Gülenists themselves were actually the force that subdued the military for the government.
The conflict has been unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is that their alliance was the first time in history that political Islam had been joined with a pragmatic, capitalist movement. This liberal Islamism not only managed to beat the old secular guard, but by putting the country on the track of sustainable growth managed to marginalize any unwanted extreme interpretations of Islam. It also increased the influence of Turkey in diplomatic and military spheres. This model seemed promising, and both the US and EU were planning to implement and export it to other Muslim countries, considering it a pillar against “the revolutionary Islamism” of Iran and of the violent Islam of al-Qaeda. Big newspapers, such as the New York Times, Economist, and Le Monde, hailed the Turkish miracle.
Yet looking back, it seems clear this model couldn’t last. Disputes over the distribution of power occasionally flared up, and then the Kurdish issue further divided the two partners. Meanwhile, in Erdoğan’s circles, the old Islamist themes began to revive, especially the idea of creating an Islamic state.
What was the reason for this revival? After the Arab Spring, AKP was way too instable and their grip on power was tenuous, especially after the economic problems of 2009, not to mention that their inner clashes and power struggles had fractured the once unified party. The party’s base that supported economic growth begun to hesitate when a part of the party headed by Erdoğan asked for the revival of Islamism and nationalism, themes that weren’t espoused for personal empowerment but to justify Turkey’s intervention within the countries of the Arab Spring. Furthermore, Erdoğan, a devotee of Erbakan (who represented the anti-western movement against democracy and market economy), had begun to believe that Turkey should distance itself from the West and should ally politically, economically, and militarily with Muslim countries, meaning that it should rebuild or revive the neo-Ottoman dream. According to this line of belief, Turkish fanaticism and nationalism should be nurtured to oppose western ideology and its democracy, which was a major departure from Gülen’s preaching.
The Gülenists had a wholly different perception than the AKP regarding Turkish identity and its connection to Islam as a pillar of a modern democratic state. These differing views—one in favor of a secular, democratic, but religiously free state; the other advocating for a religiously motivated, autocratic government—led to the natural split between the old allies. The Erdoğan government’s backtracking on the EU issue was especially concerning to the Hizmet movement, and began to bring these differences to the public’s attention. Erdoğan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the fundamentalist groups in Syria and Lebanon, was another issue that pushed him and the Gülenists—and the West—further apart.
Since these faults have been laid bare to the public, more and more divisions have become clear. Hizmet has adamantly opposed any limitations on free speech, media freedom, and the persecution of journalists. Erdoğan’s government doesn’t even hesitate to exert intentional pressures, to conduct oriented inspections, to impose arbitrary fines, and to make threats against the businesses, especially the media, publishing sector, NGOs, etc. That’s gone so far that the non-profit organization Alliance for Shared Values affirmed that in all Turkey’s history, there’s never been a person or a party before that could exercise such a pressure, an aggressive attempt to subdue the media and civil society.
Meanwhile, the brutal suppression of the massive protests in Gezi Park was the culmination of the split between the Erdoğan government with the Gülenists and the West. Those opposed to the abusive politics of Erdoğan and his circle loudly voiced their displeasure. Instead of seeking reconciliation, and moving towards more freedom and democracy, Erdoğan declared war on Gülen, his followers, and anyone who dared to criticize his policies. He approved anti-democratic and arbitrary laws to close the network of private schools in Turkey, one of the institutions at the very heart of the movement that played a key role in spreading Gülen’s ideas. Meanwhile, last November, the media published a secret document, signed by Erdoğan himself, detailing a 2004 meeting of the Turkish Security Council. In the meeting, a series of measures were recommended in order to keep the Gülen movement under control. This directive reflects the paranoia and deception of Erdoğan since the beginning of this alliance.
Unfortunately, the conflict appears far from over. It gets worse and worse, especially considering that the country is facing a series of upcoming elections—local elections last month, a presidential election this summer, and parliamentary elections next winter (although it’s possible the government will call for early parliamentary elections). Erdoğan seems ready to abuse the state arsenal at his disposal to achieve victory at all costs.
The results from the local elections have not been finalized, and reports of fraud are widespread. If the AKP loses Istanbul or Ankara, or if they lose parliamentary seats, this would be the people’s verdict on Erdoğan’s dream of becoming Turkey’s ‘new sultan.’ On the other hand, it seems that Gülen will eventually withdraw from this war; we will have to wait and see whether Erdoğan’s smear campaign will strengthen or weaken Hizmet as it continues to pursue democracy and the rule of law within Turkey.
It seems likely that things will not work out only by the vote. Provocations are on the rise, and it seems possible that there will be more protests and demonstrations—and that they could be bigger than last year’s. With the AKP divided over how to move forward, an aggravated political class, and a police force that has been shaken by mass re-assignments, it’s anyone’s guess how the country would respond to another round of protests. But, no matter the result of this war, the biggest loser is Turkey and the Turkish people. Nurtured by Ataturk’s ideas, these proud people shouldn’t let the government’s autocratic, antidemocratic, and illegal actions dampen their desire for freedom and democracy.