Turkey’s Democratic Institutions Besieged

In Foreign Policy magazine, John Hannah, a former national security advisor to Dick Cheney, suggests that “the end” of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister, may “suddenly be within the realm of possibility.” Whether the corruption probe that erupted in late December will actually lead to the end of the prime minister’s eleven-year-long political career remains to be seen. In the meantime, the probe has revealed the sad state of Turkish institutions as have been hijacked by the power struggle between two former political allies: Erdoğan and Fetullah Gülen, the exiled leader of an influential religious movement.

The struggle has already consumed three ministers’ posts and led to a major reshuffling of the cabinet. The Minister of Economy Zafer Cağlayan, the Minister of Interior Muamer Güler and the Minister for the Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayraktar, whose sons were reported to have been implicated in the probe, have resigned. Bayraktar did not go down without a fight, directly implicating the prime minister in the probe. Known as a close confidant of the prime minister, Bayraktar, at a press conference, in no unclear terms noted that whatever he did, he did with the complete knowledge and authorization of the prime minister. Bayraktar called on Erdoğan to resign as well. Many commentators have compared these resignations and especially Bayraktar’s remarks to a live hand grenade. What do these resignations mean for Turkish politics and the future of Turkish democracy?

Beyond the resignations, Erdoğan’s 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 prime minister referred to a long list of conspirators including the Ambassador of the United States to Turkey, and asserted that these conspirators sought to undermine a democratic and prosperous Turkey. Gülen was also accused of being party to this conspiracy by running a “parallel state” against the government. Gülen enjoys broad based societal support in and outside Turkey and is alleged to have sympathizers in the ranks of the Turkish National Police and Judiciary. Many leading members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) have been known to be close to the movement. Gülen, who has lived in the US since the late 1990s, was a longtime ally and supporter of the prime minister’s AK Party. This alliance was seen as critical to the many reforms that AK Party introduced in its first and second term of office including the difficult task of checking the political influence of the Turkish military. These 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 and became larger than all but five EU countries. Erdoğan also promised to put Turkey among the top 10 economies of the world by the 2023 centenary of the Turkish republic.

This positive and promising image of Turkey began to change dramatically after the last national elections in 2011 which returned Erdoğan to power for a third time with almost 50 per cent of the national votes. Turkey’s impressive economic performance was closely linked to large construction projects which increasingly became the subject of growing albeit discreet complaints about corruption. Many of these complaints came from small and medium size companies—often closely associated with the Gülen movement—across the Turkish heartland of Anatolia. These grumblings were kept under wraps by the Turkish media which has been subjected to a growing repression that put Turkey increasingly alongside China and Iran as one of the countries with the largest number of imprisoned journalists. The media repression was accompanied by the prime minister’s adoption of policies and a style of politics that increasingly polarized Turkish society. After 2011, Erdoğan’s commitment to a pluralist understanding of Turkish democracy eroded. His critics accused him of becoming majoritarian and intolerant of diversity as he began to interfere increasingly with people’s private lives by telling them how many children to have, what to eat and drink, and how to socialize.

The infamous Gezi Park demonstrations of early summer 2013 took place against this background. Initially, the protests erupted in response to the government’s decision to press ahead with an unpopular construction project. However, the prime minister’s use of denigrating language about the protestors and his insensitivity to the criticism against his increasingly majoritarian style of government very quickly led to the protests expanding across the country. Erdoğan’s decision to override efforts from within the government to defuse the crisis and instead to deploy the police against the protests further aggravated the state of Turkish domestic politics. On this particular occasion too, Erdoğan 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. These developments did attract criticisms from various Gülenist quarters in Turkey and drew growing attention to simmering differences, if not conflicts, between the two once close political allies.

The decisive break, however, appears to have come when the government initiated a legislative process aimed at closing down “prep schools”. These are privately run Turkish schools that prepare high school students for university placement exams. Each year, they serve more than half of the 1.5 million students that take these exams. Some of these schools are closely associated with the Gülen movement. They constitute a lucrative source of income, but also provide an environment for the recruitment of young individuals into the movement. The bitter conflict subsided only when the government temporarily postponed the closure of these prep schools. The recent corruption scandal came on the immediate heels of this crisis. It has turned a long running hidden conflict, in the words of many columnists in Turkey, to an “open war” between Erdoğan and the Gülenists.

The clash between the two sides has precipitated a political situation that is clearly challenging Erdoğan’s authoritarian style of governance ahead of a series of important elections. Yet, this clash does not necessarily offer a very positive picture for the future of Turkish democracy. Since the eruption of the corruption scandal, the government has resorted to administrative measures that have further monopolized control over the institutions of the Turkish state. A large number of police chiefs and officers have seen their positions changed for having been involved in the corruption investigation or for having links to the Gülenist movement. The case of the judiciary is even worse. Prosecutors and judges have seen their independence eroded and tasks brought under tighter executive control. These developments clearly undermine two sacrosanct precepts of a functioning democracy: the rule of law and the separation of powers.

The timing of the corruption revelations, which comes less than three months before critical local elections (to be followed by a Presidential one in August 2014) and immediately after a long period of mounting tension between the government and the Gülenists, does indeed seem to suggest that the police and the judiciary have been influenced by the Gülenist movement. The timing has led members of the Turkish public to raise the question whether the corruption probes were driven by political considerations rather than by investigations of the scandal that are a function of routine rule of law. From every angle, the picture is not reassuring for a Turkish public which would prefer a police and judiciary that operate on the basis of neutrality, impartiality, and the merits of the cases they are addressing.

It is highly unlikely that Erdoğan will heed his former minister Bayraktar’s call to resign. Instead he will most probably continue down the path he is on and step up his rhetoric, blaming domestic and external “others” for Turkey’s mounting problems. Ahead of the local elections in March 2014, Erdoğan will use this rhetoric to rally the party and his electorate behind the AK Party and his leadership. Opinion polls so far suggest he still commands an impressive level of support. Yet, the genie of the corruption probe and opposition to Erdoğan is decisively out of the bottle. This is why Bayraktar’s call on the prime minister to resign is of paramount importance. Whether the end of Erdoğan’s rule has come only time will tell. But what is much more critical is whether in the course of the next eighteen months Turkey will be able to emerge with its democratic institutions strengthened? It is difficult to say that the last few weeks have been very promising with respect to the credibility of these institutions, their impartiality and their ability to operate under the precepts of separation of powers. Let’s hope that the one remaining solid democratic institution of Turkey, fair and free elections, emerges from the next round of elections strengthened and is able to deliver outcomes that can revitalize Turkey’s pluralist democracy, rule of law and separation of powers. This is the outcome that would benefit all in the country and in Turkey’s neighborhood irrespective of economic, political, religious and social allegiances.