Turkey, which over the last year could hardly be described as an incubator for civil liberties, has this past year been engulfed in political chaos. It’s reputation which it has tried hard to put forward as a secular, moderate gateway to the east from Europe, and a viable member of the EU, is almost completely in tatters. It currently holds the unpleasant title as the country with the most imprisoned journalists on the planet, it is ranked 154th in the press freedom index, and it has what can only be described as a selective historical memory when it comes to Armenians. This nation has over the past year been involved in what can only be described as a governmental crisis. This crisis, which stems from a corruption probe which has sunk its teeth into the heart of governmental power and authority has threatened various power brokers nation wide. This is an on-going and real tale of political intrigue within one of NATO’s most valued countries; including foreign backers, shoeboxes full of dollars and the constitutional limits of power which keep a leader in check.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which presents itself as a moderate Islamic and economically liberal party have been in power for eleven years. In the past the AKP were considered great economic modernisers for Turkey – maintaining admirable growth rates and stable governance. This image of stability is quickly fading as Prime Minister Erdogan appears to have been taking on a more authoritarian style of governance as of late. In the summer of 2013 a peaceful protest over the destruction of the public green called Gezi Park, was met by disproportionate police action and violence. This was a PR disaster for the country, with incidents of repression being broadcast around the world; including haphazard dispersal methods such as using high grade pepper spray against peaceful demonstrators. This originally environmental protest to save a park led to a galvanising of anti-government factions and led to a nationwide solidarity movement against neoliberal expansion and authoritarianism was temporarily contained and muted. Recently, new waves of protest and anger spawned from a series of events which began in mid-December with a wave of arrests.
The collective Turkish consciousness was recovering from the Gezi Park fiasco and the incident appeared to have largely been forgotten or forgiven. The elections in March 2014 appeared to be nearing at a decent pace and the polls were favourable for the AKP, until December 17th. On this date twenty four top officials from major political, administrative and financial institutions were arrested by the police forces of the state. The reason given for the arrests was charges of bribery and corruption. As the day progressed more and more information leaked out, and It was revealed that illegal payments had allegedly been made by some of the arrested figures to bank accounts in Iran. Those arrested consisted of officials from the Housing Development Administration, the Environment and Urban Planning ministries and from the state bank. In the house of the chief exec. from the state bank 4.5 million dollars were found in shoe boxes. Other notables who were arrested included the sons of three governmental ministers and the son of the director of the state bank.
This of course pushed the government into massive spin mode which the AKP were never ones to back down from. The PM immediately denounced the arrests on behalf of the corruption inquiry as ‘a dirty operation’ and began making soundings that it was all politically motivated against him. Seeming ever more autocratic, Erdogan began to target various institutions that he saw as his immediate enemies. On the 18th of December, only a day after the arrests he dismissed and replaced scores of medium and high ranking police officers and charges them with ‘abusing their power’. The European Commission reported that more than 2,000 senior police officers were fired or moved on to different sectors during this time. Those falling victim to this exercise of power we mainly those involved in the investigative and intelligence branches of the force. Erdogan at this stage accused dark ‘internal and external forces’ of being engaged in a plot against him. Worryingly, by which he appears to have meant the police and the judiciary.
On December 25th a cabinet reshuffle took place after three ministers resigned and massive demonstrations around the country called for Erdogan’s own resignation. With these protests, came new allegations of corruption from the state prosecutors whose leaked documents show that the PM’s own son was to be detained on corruption charges. Erdogan proceeded to sack and replace more and more police officers who he saw as his adversaries. Reuters said that literally thousands of police officers in total were either let go or reassigned. The police were now also forbidden from entering government institutions after a squad tried to enter a department office in order to seize documents from the state bank. The prime minister seeing himself surrounded now moved to consolidate more authority by trying to pass laws granting him powers including the naming of all new judges and prosecutors. The debate on this issue was fierce and devolved into a fistfight in the committee rooms of parliament. These measures were called disgraceful by the opposition parties and they report that Erdogan is ‘trampling on the constitution’.
Things went from bad to worse for Erdogan during the weeks after the reshuffle. His paranoia and unwillingness to be investigated spread and he took yet more measures to crack down. The funding of an opposition party candidate in Istanbul’s mayoral elections was suddenly removed, and dozens of banking, telecom, financial regulatory and media executives were removed from office and replaced with those loyal to Erdogan, undermining whatever institutional independence they may have had. New legislation introduced on January 18th has also been proposed at the time of writing which would curb controls over internet content submitted to websites. This came after leaked images apparently showing money counting machines and piles of cash present in the homes of those who were arrested in relation to the corruption investigation. Marches numbering in the thousands continue almost every day calling for the embattled prime minister’s resignation which were met by water cannosn and tear gas. More authoritarian legislation was been proposed by the ruler; this time in order to deny medical treatment to those without government authorisation. This in other words means the withdrawal of medical treatment from protesters and opposition groupings around the nation. Other measures such as the banning of Twitter and YouTube on the run up to elections in March caused great consternation nationwide – leading many to circumvent the ban as an action of protest. These bans which have been overturned by the nation’s supreme court occurred after several recordings surfaced, allegedly showing dealings between senior officials organising potential military operations inside war torn Syria as well as an alleged conversation with the PM’s son discussing how vast sums of cash should be disposed of before the police raided several different premises.
Throughout the crisis Erdogan has claimed again and again of conspirators and saboteurs who have been trying to undermine him and the Turkish state which despite the more probable reasons for this saga doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility if one looks closer.
Fethullah Gulen is a Muslim cleric who up until a few years ago was a major backer of the AKP and lives in exile in Pennsylvania in the United States. He was forced into exile to avoid charges of trying to set up an Islamic state in Turkey which violates the countries secular constitution. He possesses a massive network of Islamic schools all over the world from Turkey to Kenya to Uzbekistan. He is a leading member of the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists. He also owns a media empire worth many millions which includes a Turkish national daily newspaper and he has been named ‘honorary leader’ of the Turkish Journalists and Writers Foundation . It is Gulen’s group Hizmitt, who the prime minister accuses of having infiltrated the various institutions of power in order for them to influence and depose the government. Hizmitt which translates to ‘The Cause’ are apparently a group akin to the more familiar Opus Dei. The BBC suggests that the group is one of the largest religious networks in the world and has vast influence in Turkish and other political spheres. The strength of this influence in Turkey was shown when a book which was due to be published concerning how the movement was supposed to have infiltrated high ranking positions in the police, the army and state institutions was censored and seized before the book was even finished by the court ordered ‘Operation Delete’. Possession of leaked drafts of this book is currently illegal in Turkey. Gulen fell out with the AKP apparently over a Turkish bill which was going to ban the charter schools which he had set up. Even after years of support of the AKP, as soon as his network was touched he withdrew funding and began voicing opposition. Since the corruption scandal has begun, in reference to the current administration he has been quoted as saying ‘May Allah rain fire upon their houses!’
This situation in Turkey is certainly hard to read. If one believes the government then Erdogan is simply trying to cling on to his legitimate state power and the scandal is simply a civil coup engineered by a wealthy and powerful adversary of the government. If one believes the opposition then Erdogan is just a wannabe dictator who is imposing new powers and restrictions on society in order to secure his position in the wake of inconvenient police and judicial actions. There is a third option also though which is an amalgamation of both mentioned. That the network known as Hizmitt has assumed powerful roles within society and are trying to take down Erdogan no matter the cost and in response to this the prime minister is shoring up all possibilities of a move against him and he is using this crisis as an opportunity to secure further drastic powers in order to further his own authoritarian ends.
The prime minister believes that the Hizmitt network is working to undermine his tenure and described the situation as ‘a state within a state’; Whatever the true nature of the crisis – democracy has suffered and is due to suffer further. A nation should be built on the strength of its judicial and institutional independence. Placing an army of conspirators into a democratically mandated institution is just as bad as filling it with loyalists and political appointees. Corruption too destroys countries; infesting them with inequality and injustice. If protesters are beaten from the streets and then refused medical treatment because the government says otherwise then the freedom to assemble is simply a sham.
As a government, the AKP have faced dogged criticism and endured scandal after scandal. They have survived where many others would have fallen to pressure. Through what was essentially a state purge of government officials, police and magistrates they have somehow come out once again as the largest party in the state after the recent local election where they secured almost 43% of the vote. With the AKP seemingly secure in power due to electoral support through all of the strife only time will tell us whether Turkey continues its progression towards a police state and if Erdogan will stay at the helm. While Erdogan aroused the fears of a potential coup at the hands of Hizmitt, whether this can be seen as true or not, one can assume that; at least for now his position is secure.
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