An Imperfect Model

A high-profile corruption scandal has aggravated the growing instability in Turkey.

A graft scandal involving individuals close to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his cabinet erupted on December 17. Subsequently, the government has removed a string of police chiefs and officers as well as members of the judiciary from their posts claiming that there is a “conspiracy” directed against the government. The PM referred to a long list of conspirators, including unnamed ambassadors that he threatened with expulsion.

However, supporters of Erdogan have identified Fetullah Gülen, the head of a religiously conservative civil society movement that enjoys broad-based societal support and is alleged to have sympathisers in the ranks of the Turkish National Police and judiciary, as the primary culprit. Gülen, who has lived in the US since the late 1990s, was a long-time ally and supporter of the PM’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Relations between the PM and Gülen’s movement had been deteriorating for some time on a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from relations with Israel to Erdogan’s recent attempt to have the lucrative prep schools shut down.

The corruption scandal comes at an unfortunate time for the government as Turkey enters an 18-month-long election cycle that will see local elections in March, presidential elections in August and a parliamentary one in mid-2015. The resulting instability from the corruption scandal also coincides with a period when Turkey’s international image has been tarnished and its foreign policy faces growing challenges in a deeply unstable neighbourhood.

The AKP first came to power in 2002, after many years of unstable coalition governments composed of political parties that had long been implicated in widespread corruption. The party chose for itself consciously the acronym AK, meaning “clean”, to distance itself from the others. They also promised the electorate greater freedoms, economic reforms and a commitment to EU membership. This approach paid off as the party was swept into power decisively and succeeded in delivering on its promises, ensuring for itself two additional massive electoral successes in 2007 and 2011. During these years, political reforms improved the quality of Turkish democracy to a point where, in 2005, EU membership accession talks were able to begin.

Meanwhile, the Turkish economy boomed, fast becoming the 17th largest economy in the world and larger than all but five EU countries. It was also during this period that the minister of foreign affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, launched his “zero problems with neighbours” policy to promote friendlier relations with neighbours and mediate regional conflicts. He also significantly expanded Turkey’s economic relations in its neighbourhood. These developments raised the prestige and visibility of the country. Many talked about Turkey’s “soft power” as a remedy to the many conflicts in its neighbourhood and as a source of stability. Hence, when the Arab Spring broke out late in 2010, Turkey was presented as a “model” to emulate and ensure transition towards greater democracy and economic prosperity.

However, this optimistic picture began to erode soon after the AKP won the parliamentary elections for a third time and received almost 50 per cent of national votes in the summer of 2011. Domestically, the PM adopted policies and a style that increasingly polarised society. His commitment to a pluralist understanding of democracy eroded. Now, his critics accused him of becoming majoritarian and intolerant of dissent. Turkey quickly became vilified alongside China and Iran as one of the countries with the most imprisoned journalists. Many others felt compelled to resort to self-censorship.

Summer 2013’s infamous Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul initially erupted in response to the government’s determination to pursue an unpopular construction project. However, the PM’s use of denigrating language and insensitivity to his growing majoritarian style very quickly led to nationwide protests against the government. His decision to override efforts from within the government to defuse the crisis and instead resort to police repression further aggravated the state of domestic politics. On this particular occasion too, he attributed the protests to a wide range of conspirators jealous of “Turkey’s democracy and economic performance” and gave no signs of considering any adjustments to the substance or style of his policies.

The image of Turkish foreign policy too has gathered some conspicuous dents. As the Arab Spring turned violent both in Egypt and Syria, the Turkish government came down categorically in support of one side over the other. In the case of Syria, Turkey broke relations with the regime, extended unequivocal support for the opposition and opened its borders to fleeing refugees. As the expectation that the Syrian regime would collapse under its own repressive policies did not come to pass, Turkey has come to be seen as part of the problem in Syria. In Egypt, the Turkish government defined the military intervention as a coup; its ambassador was soon expelled from Cairo. The Syrian crisis has also strained Turkey’s relations with Iraq, Iran and as well as Russia, each of which supports the regime.

At the same time, Erdogan managed to alienate both the US and EU by accusing them of compounding the human tragedy by failing to intervene more decisively against the Syrian regime. This has been accompanied by his efforts to shun the EU; Erdogan has repeatedly approached Russian President Vladimir Putin with requests to admit Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Eurasian Customs Union. Both organisations are largely composed of authoritarian governments. At a time when an ever growing number of Ukrainians have been demonstrating against closer relations with Russia and in support of the EU, Erdogan’s stance has raised eyebrows inside and outside Turkey. These developments have led many critiques to argue that Turkey’s foreign policy has started to look more like “zero neighbours without problems” than “zero problems with neighbours.” They have also highlighted how Turkey’s “soft power” and “model” image too has become deeply undermined.

The corruption scandal and the conflict with the Gülen movement are likely to aggravate the growing instability and turbulence in the country. The government is already planning a major cabinet revision in the hope that this might help save the image of the AKP as “clean”, while continuing to purge Gülenists from the party ranks and state apparatus. This week, Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan and Interior Minister Muammer Guler resigned after their sons were charged, as did Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar. The PM is also hoping to rally his supporters and electoral base by presenting the scandal as a conspiracy against the successes of Erdogan-led Turkey. Time will tell whether this new strategy of rejecting coalition building and going it alone will pay off and ensure a respectable result as he prepares himself for the upcoming local, presidential and parliamentary elections. In the meantime, however, the government will be distracted from addressing tough economic, political and foreign policy challenges. It will be a long time before Turkey can regain its earlier image as a “model” for the region and help to transform the region with its “soft power” towards greater stability and prosperity. It would be in the interest of all, irrespective of being supporters of Erdogan or Gülen, to make sure that Turkey does not lose what is left of its democracy, economic dynamism and stability.

This article was originally published by The Indian Express.