Monday, November 24, 2014
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The Warring States of Turkey

BANGALORE, INDIA – Turkey’s democratic experiment appears to be floundering. A decade of stellar political and economic performance had convinced many analysts that the country could be an inspiration, if not a model, for the rest of the Muslim Middle East. But the government’s actions over the last few months – which mark a trend, rather than being isolated incidents – have jeopardized many of Turkey’s achievements.

It all began with a wave of corruption charges, based on considerable evidence, brought against government officials, businessmen, and politicians’ family members. Of course, corruption by itself does not pose a serious threat to democracy, especially in the developing world. India, for example, remains a functioning democracy, despite high-level corruption that far exceeds anything that Turkey has experienced.

The problem in Turkey has been the government’s excessive response to the corruption investigations: removing thousands of police officers and reassigning hundreds of prosecutors and judges. The authorities’ heavy-handed retaliation for a legitimate inquiry became an international scandal, eroding confidence in the commitment of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to democratic norms.

A better approach would have been to appoint a high-level committee to investigate the allegations – a strategy that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly employed to defuse public anger over corruption scandals. By the time the long-drawn-out process of inquiry and report-writing is complete – often years after it began – most people have forgotten the original charge, and the accused are frequently either politically irrelevant or dead.

By contrast, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan persecuted the investigators and pressed for legislation to bring the judiciary under the executive’s control, thereby turning what could have been a routine scandal into a serious political crisis. By eroding the separation of powers, Erdoğan has given the opposition ammunition to denounce the AKP government’s anti-democratic inclinations.

Making matters worse, the scandal is likely to embolden military leaders, whose political power and ambitions the AKP had ostensibly neutralized. Indeed, in 2007, the military failed to prevent Abdullah Gül from winning the presidency, suggesting that its political influence was waning. And, in 2012, the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials – which resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of military officers, including several generals, for plotting a coup against the government – seemed to guarantee civilian rule once and for all; the military was back in the barracks.

The current scandal has changed everything. Erdoğan and the AKP now seem to be eyeing the military brass, once known as the “deep state,” as potential allies against the Gülen movement – a powerful network comprising followers of the self-exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen – accusing the movement of undermining AKP rule by setting up a “parallel state.”

To be sure, the allegations are not unfounded. Over the last two decades, large numbers of Gülenists have been recruited into the bureaucracy, the police, and the judiciary, with several holding positions powerful enough that they allegedly can undermine any elected government. But this was facilitated by the movement’s close ties with the AKP – an alliance that helped the AKP to secure three successive electoral victories since 2002.

Today, the one-time allies have become inveterate enemies. Erdoğan never entirely trusted the Gülen movement, viewing it as an alternative locus of power with the potential to unseat him and his party. Since his last electoral victory in 2011, he has been working to remove Gülenists from their official positions.

The final straw was the revelation that many of those responsible for unearthing the corruption scandal are connected with the Gülen movement. Now, convinced that these officials were acting on Gülen’s orders, Erdoğan and his colleagues are turning toward the deep state for help in countering the parallel state.

While it is difficult to gauge whether the allegations made against the Gülenist officials are true, the movement undoubtedly instills in its members a powerful sense of loyalty, comparable to that underpinning a Leninist organization, though without the formal structure of a party. Nonetheless, the Gülen movement’s parallel state – if it does exist – is unlikely to pose as serious a threat to democracy as the military’s deep state, which has a proven track record of overthrowing civilian governments.

Turkey’s main source of hope is Gül, a reputed liberal constitutionalist committed to the separation of powers, who must now take a strong stand against Erdoğan and his cronies. If he does not, Turkey is unlikely to serve anyone as a model for years – if not decades – to come.

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    1. CommentedCenkler İskin

      Dear Professor Ayoob,
      I am a follower of your books and articles for years. Your book, the many faces of political islam" has a priviliged place in my library since you captured the difference/cleaveages within islam. But, it seems that you are not very familiar with what going on in Turkey or you should check your sources because ther transmit you with false info. As you already observed and mostly refer, Turkey is in the golden age of democracy. State is now in full peace with all political groups, including Alawites, Kurds and Muslims. Now, No clash with Kurds for more than 2 years and women with scarves can enter to schools and take part in public services. Nothing is on bad track. But, the problem is Gulenists invested so much on law, police and government offices. They recruited/trained their followers to serve for their purposes: to tape government officials, to track their families. They did this not only for government officials, they also went after opposition parties, civil society groups. They just accumulated all they can gather for those years. private lives, family talks, everything...Traditionally they are very good with conspiracy theories and they have the international network to disseminate their outcomes (for example they claim Erdogan carried 100 billion US Dolars to Iran with his plane). They also tried to convince Western countries AKP is in cooperation with Iran and Al Qaida. In domestic, they accused of governments with corruption. They also criticzed harshly government's good relations with Kurdish groups and also introduced nationalist discourses against government. In this vein, I wish you had known some Turkish and can grab the whole picture from ongoing discussions. Best regards.

        CommentedBerhan Bayraktaroğlu

        What a democratic leader that who is calling ODTU students ( Harvard for Turkey) as Atheist and terrorists when the students protest a new road project which passing through the university area and cutting hundreds of trees.

        CommentedBerhan Bayraktaroğlu

        Golden age of democracy? This is funniest thing I have heard since months! Gulen and AKP were allies since years against the seculars but they were hiding this mission as they were fighting against army. Now army and the seculars dismissed and there is a new fight for the soul of the state. Unfortunately there is no gain for Turkey. Beacause none if them are democrats. The only thing they want is power. Gulen wants a position like Pope in Muslim world and Erdogan has a fantasy to be a new Ottoman leader in modern era.

    2. CommentedMazhar Can

      Gul already ratified contentious HSYK and internet bills. The former de facto annuls separation of powers while the latter is for shutting down any dissident voice. Calling Gul for standing against Erdogan? Are you being sarcastic?

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