The End of Erdogan?

Why a power struggle over Turkey's deep state could bring down the government.

By John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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, 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 domesticErdogan 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.

Figuring out exactly why is no easy matter. Ultimately, it’s about power, of course. More specifically, it’s about Erdogan and the intensifying megalomania that has become an increasingly prominent feature of his governing style. The man now appears more or less incapable of brooking any challenge to his authority. Egged on by an inner-circle of sycophants who live in fear of his wrath, Erdogan appears genuinely convinced that his personal interests and agenda, and those of the Turkish nation, are now largely synonymous. What he wants is, ipso facto, what the Turkish people need. Anyone who disagrees with him is resisting the popular will. Anyone who criticizes him is attacking Turkey and constitutes, by definition, an enemy of the state, a traitor that must be broken and neutralized.

It’s a world where independent centers of power, wealth, influence, and allegiance are always a danger. Eventually, they must be cowed into submission, co-opted, or crushed, deploying as necessary the coercive levers of the state to do so — threats, wiretaps, blackmail, tax liens, arrests, manufactured evidence, long-term imprisonment, all are fair game. In no small part, the story of the first decade of AKP rule has been its slow but methodical march through the commanding institutions of Turkish society. One by one, by hook or by crook, they have been brought into line. The bureaucracy: check. The media: check. Business: check. The courts: check. And, of course, the big enchilada, the military: check. Or, more accurately, checkmate.

From this perspective, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Erdogan set his sights on the Gulenists. They oversee a worldwide network of schools. They control their own business and media empire. They have a charismatic leader, a distinct ideology, and, it is believed, millions of loyal followers throughout Turkey. Most threatening of all, Gulenists are said to be seeded throughout the Turkish power structure, with particular influence over the police and the judiciary. Indeed, Gulenists have almost certainly been the tip of the spear in the AKP’s multi-year campaign to marginalize and subjugate Turkey’s military, as well as the other former pillars of the Kemalist state. But with that task largely complete, Erdogan appears to have come to the conclusion that the time was ripe to take them down a peg — or more. Paranoid he may be, but leave it to Erdogan to recognize a threat, or at least a potential threat, to his authoritarian ambitions when he sees one.

It’s been downhill ever since. Erdogan allegedly began ousting Gulenists from positions of authority in the bureaucracy. When Turkey was rocked last summer by the Gezi Park protests, Gulen and his supporters not so subtly came out against the government’s heavy-handed response. Gulen’s media have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism against many of Erdogan’s most controversial policy positions, both foreign and domestic, as well as his increasingly autocratic rule. Then, in a major escalation of the conflict that amounted to more or less a declaration of all-out war, Erdogan proposed eliminating the dershanes, a system of exam-prep courses that serve as a major source of revenue and influence for Gulen’s empire. In short order, the Gulenists retaliated on multiple fronts. In late November, their media published a classified 2004 memo from Turkey’s National Security Council, signed by Erdogan, which recommended a series of measures targeting the Gulen movement. On Monday this week, a well-known Gulenist member of parliament resigned in protest from the AKP. And immediately thereafter came the police raids against Erdogan’s allies, followed by Erdogan’s purging of the police chiefs.

Where this confrontation goes from here is anyone’s guess. It seems almost certain to get worse, even much worse — especially in the run-up to a series of all-important local, presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled to kick off in March 2014. Gulen’s allies in the police and prosecutor’s office have already leaked a series of gory details about the corruption probe: Millions of dollars found stashed away in shoeboxes and safes belonging to the head of Halkbank and the Turkish interior minister’s son. The leaks so far — billions of dollars in illicit transactions with Iran, incriminating wiretaps — are the tip of the iceberg.Tens of billions of dollars in illicit transactions with Iran. The existence of hours of incriminating wiretaps. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, we’re told. There are ominous threats of more to come, including, it is said, videotape of a government minister with close ties to Erdogan accepting a seven-figure bribe. How much of a leap to suspect that the Gulenists could be holding in reserve some kind of nuclear option, a dossier of sorts that potentially touches the prime minister, himself? No one knows. But anything seems possible in this environment. In part it depends on just how far the Gulenists are prepared to go. Is their aim simply to get Erdogan to back off or are they really seeking to bring him down for good? At the moment, it sure feels like the latter, but nothing’s certain. And that includes what steps an increasingly desperate Erd
ogan might be prepared to take against his opponents, with all the substantial powers at his command and feeling himself under siege and pushed to the wall.

One hopes this showdown will play itself out consistent with the rule of law and the democratic process, with the ultimate verdict delivered at the ballot box. But that’s by no means a sure thing. Who can say that some revelation may not emerge, some provocation may not occur, some spark won’t be lit that — like Gezi last summer — puts millions of angry people from opposing camps back into the streets? And this time with a ruling elite that appears irreversibly fractured and at each other’s throats. Moreover, one has to ask: What do the police and other forces charged with maintaining public security do when Erdogan calls upon them yet again to crack heads and restore order? It’s not too hard to see how this nastiness could get really out of hand.

Short of that, it’s still almost certainly the case that Erdogan’s political fortunes have been seriously weakened. Starting with his intolerant, imperious, and menacing response to Gezi six months ago, he’s clearly lost his golden touch. He’s making mistakes and miscalculations, repeatedly. He appears increasingly erratic, authoritarian, and thuggish. He’s alienating enemies, to be sure, but allies as well — not just among the Gulenists, but within his own camp, too. His aura of invincibility has been cracked. The widespread fear he induced in large swathes of Turkish society has been partially breached. For the first time in a decade, there are signs that he may be vulnerable politically.

Already, there are rumors that there soon could be further resignations of Gulenists from the AKP parliamentary coalition, including perhaps a small number of cabinet ministers. On the economic front, this week’s news sent Turkey’s stock market and currency tumbling, and it is entirely possible that a drawn out crisis could precipitate large-scale capital flight from the Turkish market. Depending on how bad the news gets, one can even imagine Erdogan’s own comrades in the AKP starting to look for ways to distance themselves from him in an attempt to salvage their careers. The implosion of the AKP coalition, while perhaps still not likely, suddenly seems within the realm of possibility.

Nevertheless, given Erdogan’s near-total mastery over Turkey’s political scene for more than a decade, it’s still probably a stretch at this point to bet against him — much less count him out. Even in the wake of Gezi and other events, there’s not yet a lot of hard evidence that either he or the AKP have suffered a major hit in popularity. And it’s even harder to make the case that Turkey’s rather hapless secular opposition parties have been major beneficiaries of the Islamists’s internecine showdown.

What does seem far more probable today than six months ago, however, is the prospect of an Erdogan who has been seriously chastened, weakened, and constrained. If in upcoming elections, the AKP loses control of certain key cities and sees its majority in parliament significantly eroded, it will be viewed as a direct repudiation of Erdogan’s alarming bid to become a modern-day sultan. It could empower other figures within the AKP with greater inclinations toward a more tolerant, moderate, and consensus-driven form of politics. It would signal that Turks had at long last grown fed up with Erdogan’s particular brand of demagoguery, bullying, and creeping Islamist authoritarianism.Are Turks fed up with Erdogan’s particular brand of demagoguery, bullying, and creeping Islamist authoritarianism? That could only be a good thing for Turkey’s democracy and, most probably, for its relations with the rest of the world, including the United States.

On that note, it’s worth highlighting that the Halkbank element to the current corruption probe should merit special interest in Washington. The state-owned bank has long been under suspicion for its relationship to Iran. But initial hints from the investigation suggest that it might have been much, much worse than anyone thought, involving potentially tens of billions of dollars in illicit transactions in a massive sanctions-busting scheme, the direct beneficiary of which would have been the Iranian nuclear program. If proven out, that’s an international scandal of the first order, especially if one assumes, not unreasonably, that it could not have been carried out without the complicity of some very high-level officials in the Turkish government. It would certainly reinforce the concern that many have long-held about Erdogan’s efforts to move Turkish foreign policy in directions decidedly unfriendly to America and the West. Let’s wait and see what the evidence shows, but if there’s a there there, it would be one more powerful reason for the United States to harbor hope that the Erdogan era as we’ve known it may now be coming to a close.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and a former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.