Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan fights for political survival

December 27, 2013

Turkey’s bullish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is locked in a struggle for political survival with a United States-based Muslim cleric, whose followers he helped infiltrate the country’s police, courts, the military, and even his own Justice and Development Party.

Erdogan lost another round today in his increasingly frantic contest with the self-exiled conservative cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose followers in police special investigations units, on December 17, detained 52 people on corruption allegations, including the sons of three cabinet ministers.

In response, Erdogan sacked five Gulenist police commissioners and moved to start removing the cleric’s followers from the judiciary.

At the same time, Erdogan tried to head off the gathering taint of corruption around his administration by firing 10 ministers touched by the investigations or whose loyalty he doubted.

The Prime Minister’s attempts to grab control of the situation are, however, coming up hard against the Gulenists Erdogan helped infiltrate Turkey’s establishment. Erdogan encouraged this infiltration after coming to power in 2003 as part of his drive to dismantle Turkey’s secular constitution and create an Islamic state.

A Turkish court today, Friday, blocked an attempt by the Erdogan government to force police to disclose their investigations to their political masters.

The decision by the Council of State, which adjudicates on administrative issues, comes as a Turkish newspaper published what it claims is a copy of a preliminary summons for one of Erdogan’s sons, Bilal, on corruption allegations.

With municipal elections approaching in March and the possibility that 2015 national elections will be brought forward, Erdogan remains very popular with Turkish voters after overseeing a decade of economic growth. However, the Gulenites are so thoroughly embedded in Turkey’s key institutions that Erdogan might well be removed from the leadership of the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, before the voters get a chance to give their verdict on the affair.

In 1999 Erdogan and Gulen were natural allies. Erdogan, former mayor of Istambul, was in prison after being convicted of inciting religious violence as part of his political campaign to rewrite the secular constitution Turkey inherited from its modern founder, Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Gulen was in exile in the U.S. after a video surfaced in which he appeared to be telling his followers in his Hizmet network to infiltrate the key institutions of the Turkish establishment.

“You must move within the arteries of the system, without anyone noticing your existence, until you reach all the power centres,” Gulen says in the video. “You must wait until such time as you have got all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institution in Turkey.”

Gulen claims the video was doctored, and he was later cleared in absentia of charges of trying to undermine the state.

Yet when Erdogan came to power in 2003, Gulen and his Hizmet movement became instruments of the new Prime Minister’s Islamist agenda. Erdogan allowed Gulenists to infiltrate the judiciary and the police, and Gulen reciprocated by backing Erdogan and the AKP at election time.

Hizmet means “service” and during its early years it portrayed itself as a movement akin to western Europe’s Christian democrats, emphasising moral virtue and hard work.

The movement swiftly became vastly wealthy as followers donated between five and 20 per cent of their incomes to Hizmet.

Gulen also established a network of private crammer schools throughout Turkey, and among other Mulsim communities from Kenya to Central Asia.

It is unclear what caused the falling out between Gulen and Erdogan. Gulen-owned newspapers began criticising Erdogan in May, when there were massive street protests against what is seen as the Prime Minister’s increasing authoritarianism.

Erdogan retaliated by suggesting private schools should be closed, including Hizmet’s crammers. Gulen’s response was to unleash his followers in the police, who launched investigations into high-level corruption.

The police struck on December 17 when 52 people were arrested for alleged bribery involving public tenders. Among those detained were the sons of the ministers of the interior, the economy and the environment.

Police also raided the headquarters of one of Turkey’s largest banks, Halkbank, whose general manager was found to have $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes.

The next day Erdogan struck back by firing five police commissioners, including the heads of the financial crime and organised crime units, who had overseen the corruption investigations. Also ditched in Erdogan’s purge of Gulenists were the heads of the public security branch, the anti-terrorism unit and the smuggling unit.

The battle may now get dirtier still.

Gulen himself has admitted that his followers in the police have taken unauthorised videos of politicians in compromising situations. So far, only opposition politicians have been the victims of the public release of such vidoes.

Concentrating on government corruption is also a deft move in a country where there is widespread public belief that politicians are buyable.

For Erdogan the choices are difficult and there are several scenarios over which he has little control.

He will undoubtedly continue his campaign to remove Gulenites from key positions and to amend laws to give the government clearer control over the police and judiciary. The Gulenites are well entrenched, however, and Erdogan may not succeed.

If he survives until March, the municipal elections will be seen within the AKP as a sign of Erdogan’s prospects in the 2015 national elections.

Erdogan cannot serve a fourth term as Prime Minister and AKP leader. The expectation is that he would run to succeed President Abdullah Gul, who would run to replace Erdogan as Prime Minister.

If the March results suggest Erdogan has become a liability, that deal is unlikely to survive.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com