- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He blogs for Foreign Policy's Shadow Government.
There’s a very big story developing in Turkey that all foreign policy mavens should be watching closely. Exactly how big remains to be seen, but the stakes are huge. At issue: Will the decade-long domination of Turkish politics by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue? Or is the Erdogan era about to come crashing down, fatally weakened by scandal, infighting, and authoritarian overreach?
Early Tuesday morning on Dec. 17, police in Istanbul and Ankara carried out a wave of stunning arrests that included powerful businessmen, the sons of three cabinet ministers, and the head of an important state-owned financial institution, Halkbank. The operation flowed from a series of corruption-related investigations that have apparently been underway for a year or more. All the key targets swept up in the raids are closely linked to Erdogan’s government.
Erdogan, characteristically, responded by going on the offensive and hurling accusations at his opponents. He attacked the action as a "dirty operation," the goal of which was to smear his administration and undermine the progress that Turkey had made under his leadership. He alluded to a dark conspiracy launched by terrorist gangs, both foreign and domestic, that were operating a state within the state. While insisting that Turkey was a democracy, not some two-bit banana republic, he proceeded to engineer within a day the sacking of more than 20 high-level police officers in Istanbul and Ankara, including those directly in charge of the units that carried out the raids. More heads seem almost certain to roll. Rumors that the lead prosecutor supervising the investigations had also been removed were vehemently denied — though two new prosecutors were suddenly (and mysteriously) added to the probe. Howls of political interference in an ongoing judicial matter erupted. The crisis deepened.
These dramatic events were simply the latest escalation in a long-simmering battle royale within the AKP’s Islamist coalition. On one side: Erdogan and his followers, whose political roots lie in the transnational Muslim Brotherhood movement founded in Egypt in 1928. On the other: the Gulenists, a secretive society whose religious ideology bears a more distinctly Turkish flavor, led by Fethullah Gulen, a septuagenarian cleric who fled Turkey in the late 1990s and now lives in exile in rural Pennsylvania. Partners for much of the past decade in the AKP’s systematic efforts to undermine the foundations of Ataturk’s secular republic and bring the Turkish military to heel, Erdogan and the Gulenists have now turned on each other with a vengeance.