Trial by Fire

Visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on January 9, 2014 (MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images). Visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looks on at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on January 9, 2014 (MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images).

Visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looks on at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on January 9, 2014 (MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images).

After a decade of electoral victories and near-continuous economic growth, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, are now facing what may turn out to be their biggest challenge yet. As the Turkish people prepare to head to the polls for this year’s presidential and local elections, a corruption scandal which has engulfed the nation has forced Erdoğan to reshuffle his cabinet after three implicated members, including former Interior Minister Muammer Güler and former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, resigned. Those two men’s sons remain in jail.

But this may only be the beginning.

Regardless of who or what triggered the scandal, Erdoğan’s party has now been forced into a tight spot. It has had to review its alliances with the various groups active in Turkish politics, the most prominent of them being the Gülen movement—once a key part of the prime minister’s conservative support base. Named after Pennsylvania-based conservative preacher Fethullah Gülen, the movement has branches all over the world. It has now become more than just an NGO: The past weeks have shown that its influence in Turkey’s political and security apparatus is unmatched.

A month ago, after a bitter fight over police appointments, Erdoğan even admitted that he had yielded too much power to the Gülenists. “Have we turned down any of their requests?” he asked in a TV interview before answering his own question: no, they hadn’t.

Abdülkadir Selvi, a pro-AKP columnist in the daily Yeni Şafak newspaper wrote: “One should only be grateful. How many governors did the Gülen movement have before the AKP [came to power]? How many do they have now? How many police chiefs?”

It seems that Erdoğan is now feeling the clear and present danger presented by the very police chiefs and prosecutors he and his party helped into office.

The Gülen movement, as well as the police and the judiciary, was the AKP’s greatest ally during the mass arrests of opposition figures between 2007 and 2010. The controversial Ergenekon trials of soldiers, intellectuals and journalists accused of plotting coups against the Islamist government have been based on police raids and now-disputed digital evidence gathered mostly by the “special teams”—which are largely composed of officers sympathetic to the Gülen movement.

In the final days of 2013, at the height of the corruption investigation, the prime minister’s chief advisor and Ankara MP for the AKP, Yalçın Akdoğan, came out with a startling statement that alluded to the Gülenists: “Groups or gangs” in the corridors of power had plotted against the military and the intelligence service, he said, and they had even dared to try to topple the elected AKP government. That statement has been seen as a justification for all the politically charged Ergenekon trials that have led to the imprisonment of more than 300 high-ranking soldiers and opposition figures. Akdoğan’s remarks triggered a judicial debate about whether the sentences of some of the prisoners should be vacated so that they could face retrials. Akdoğan later backtracked on some of his comments, but the damage had already been done.

Today, Erdoğan seems eager for a compromise with the military and the secular masses, in the hope of crushing what he calls a Gülenist “parallel state.” Even while the prime minister was away on a visit to East and Southeast Asia last week, more than 600 police officers and several high-level prosecutors from around the country were removed from office. EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle recently urged Turkey to “take all the necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner.”

The AKP’s next move is to try to change the structure of the judiciary, to make it more dependent on the executive and legislative branches of government. But fights between Turkish MPs broke out as they debated the measure in the Turkish parliament on Saturday, and constitutional scholars in Turkey say that the attempt is being perceived as an outright violation of the separation of powers and an elimination of the already marginal checks and balances on government power in the country. In contrast, Erdoğan’s supporters claim that the judiciary and the police will attempt a coup if their powers are not curbed.

As Erdoğan prepares for this year’s local and presidential elections, which will run into the summer, he is also likely preparing some political maneuvers. In this round of voting he might appeal to Turkey’s secular current, which has been one of his greatest adversaries so far. A retrial of the soldiers imprisoned as part of the Ergenekon trials might just be the beginning of a national reconciliation. But if the graft probe widens and deepens, the prime minister may find himself with no room to change course. After a decade in which he put hundreds of people on trial, Erdoğan may soon face his own final verdict at the ballot box.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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