This article was first published at Haaretz Newspaper and republished under Louis Fishman‘s permission.
The uncovering of a slew of financial scandals in Turkey shocked the country and exposed what appears to be a government corrupt to its bones. It is also a turning point for Turkey’s prime minister for the last eleven years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP. While few can deny his remarkable achievements – a strong economy, removing the country’s military tutelage, working for a just solution for the Kurdish question, and fixing injustices, such as lifting the headscarf ban, the political chaos we are now witnessing is not due solely to the gravity of the corruption issue, but also to Erdogan’s miscalculations and inherent weaknesses.
The corruption probe caps a rough two years; after being elected with almost fifty percent of the vote for a third term in 2011, Erdogan was in an ideal position to legislate reforms close to his heart. But the key reform should have been to adopt a new constitution, sealing his legacy as the leader who eradicated one of the last vestiges of the 1980 coup. But his party has now postponed debate on this until after the 2015 parliamentary elections, and Erdogan did not push back against this. Within the parliament, Erdogan’s push to legislate presidential reform, entitling Turkey’s president to executive powers, was also another miscalculation. According to the AKP’s guidelines, a prime minister can serve only three terms. To realize his dream of leading Turkey until 2023, its 100th anniversary, Erdogan announced plans to run for president in summer 2014. While this option is still possible, his attempts to transfer executive powers to the presidency failed, due to parliamentarians’ fears of a ‘Putinization’ of the Turkish political system.
Since 2011, Erdogan has also had to face a much more organized opposition, both within parliament and on the street. While many focus on Erdogan’s strong poll numbers, it’s wrong to ignore the CHP, the main opposition party, which now enjoys the support of a quarter of the Turkish population. However, the opposition is not limited to parliament: Over the last few years, more citizens have taken it upon themselves to express their dissent towards Erdogan’s policies. At sporting events and universities, Erdogan and his ministers have been openly booed, forcing them to seclude themselves within protected domains. This seclusion revealed to the public one of Erdogan’s greatest weaknesses: His inability to absorb any forms of dissent.
Erdogan has wrongly interpreted the support of such a large electorate behind him as carte blanche to curb all dissent; where once it was only ‘radical’ Kurdish and leftist groups which met with teargas, now the mainstream opposition, and almost any group protesting government policy, is subjected to violent police clampdowns. What Erdogan did not understand was that the harder the government fought to silence dissent, the louder the voices were raised, culminating in the Gezi Park protests.
There is no doubt that the Gezi protests surprised Erdogan; however, in place of adopting a damage control plan, he remained defiant, blaming the protests on international conspiracies, with some of his ministers even using the potent Jewish conspiracy card. Taking this route left the Turkish police battling protesters until today in a vicious circle; as Erdogan has never addressed the core of the problem, he has prolonged it, making it much worse. As a result, Turkey has become even more polarized, and, with former liberal support withering away, Erdogan opened the AKP’s door to a more conservative-based factions.
As Erdogan was faced with greater dissent in the public sphere, he also sought to consolidate power within his own party, and there is no doubt that the Gulenist movement, followers of the Turkish religious preacher Fethullah Gulen, in self-imposed exile in the U.S., was top of his list. Known also by the term Hizmet, the Gulen followers were a major sub-faction of Erdogan’s AKP, who joined forces against the Turkish military. Over the years it became apparent that this was a marriage of convenience, and that a power struggle was inevitable.
During the last few weeks, an all-out war of words has erupted within the AKP between the two factions, a particularly messy fight thanks to how integrally woven into the party the Gulenists are. Following the corruption probe, this group has been targeted by Erdogan as those conspiring against his leadership, strengthened by the rumors that they have a strong presence within the judiciary and police force.
While there is a kernel of truth concerning the Gulenists’ influence within state institutions, it in no way exonerates those accused of the alleged crimes. Yet, like the Gezi protests, the prime minister has brushed off this corruption as an international conspiracy as well, with some even linking the Gulen movement with Israel in a plot against Turkey. Erdogan has stepped up his campaign against his opponents, tagging them as traitors. The rhetorical volatility is reaching a tipping point that risks bringing Turkey back to the dark days of the past. There are also serious allegations that Erdogan is meddling in judicial affairs, raising concerns about the future of Turkish democracy.
If the corruption allegations are true, it seems impossible that Erdogan will remain unscathed. With the local elections months away, and presidential and parliamentary ones on the horizon, he faces an unprecedented challenge. No electorate likes polarization; nor, does the financial sector, weary after this week’s stock market losses. Perhaps the resignation of members of his own party resign will convince Erdogan to rethink his moves in order not to lose significant popular support.
There is no doubt that Erdogan is a political genius, but he might be running out of the clout he once wielded. Erdogan is facing a rough road ahead, and he is taking a whole country with him on this journey.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luis Fishman is an assistant professor at CUNY Brooklyn College and interested in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and Modern Turkey. Currently on research leave, he is based in Istanbul until September 2013.
You can follow him on Twitter at @Istanbultelaviv.