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.

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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.