Erdogan’s political future hinges on local elections

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Rabi' al-Thani 01, 1435 2014-02-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 12, Rabi' al-Thani, 1435)

Local elections slated for end of March will be an important test for Prime Minister Recept Tayip Erdogan and his AKP party to see whether he can weather the Gulenist-led scandals that have gripped Turkey.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has perhaps never been so frustrated since the 1997 military coup d’état that toppled Necmeddin Erbakan’s elected government in Turkey as he is today. At that time as a result of the coup, Erbakan’s Welfare Party was banned, and Erdogan who was the mayor of Istanbul was sent to prison in a politically-motivated court decision.

Since December 17, the AKP government has been hammered by a sophisticated propaganda campaign that carries all the hallmarks of the 1997 coup d’état. The campaign has been orchestrated by Fetullah Gulen who resides in the US state of Pennsylvania and is executed by members of his surreptitious organization that have infiltrated key state institutions, most importantly the police and the judiciary.

Gulen is determined to topple Erdogan but is aware that the latter is a powerful and charismatic leader who is not only domestically popular but also enjoys considerable support in the streets of the Muslim world. Owing to his charisma, his current political rivals pose no threat to Erdogan’s premiership in elections. Therefore in order to topple Erdogan, the Gulenists have launched a two-fold campaign against him. First tainting the reputation of the AKP and Erdogan will facilitate in catapulting a leader or party against him so that they might be able to take over when Erdogan is not able to cope with the increasing pressure. Second, the Gulenists have been targeting the Turkish economy to undermine his support base.

In every political system that is accountable to the people even the greatest leaders have their Achilles’ heel. In the AKP, which has ruled the country for more than a decade, it is well known that some politicians within its ranks have been intoxicated by power during this period and have gotten involved in corruption. In the last few years many people were aware of this decay within the AKP and angry about it. This was one of the reasons that led to the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul. Although nobody doubts Erdogan’s honesty who is known to be a devout Muslim and has never been involved in corruption, some AKP members involved in corruption have become Erdogan’s Achilles’ heel.

The Gulenists have exploited this weakness to the fullest. Taking advantage of their infiltration in the police force enabled them to tap the phones of AKP members including several ministers, some of whom were allegedly involved in corruption. The judges who have also been members of the Gulen movement issued warrants for these tappings in their secret court hearings, and consequently the police have put together a number of dossiers, some of which have been made public while others still await an “appropriate time.”

The Gulenists’ strategy is to increase the pressure by gradually releasing these dossiers against the AKP until local elections on March 30, 2014. If the pressure continues, they believe that the AKP will lose the trust of the people in elections and as a result will have to subjugate to the will of Fetullah Gulen.

They also aim to tarnish Erdogan’s reputation outside Turkey. In this regard, one of the first targets of the Gulenists was the state owned Halk Bank. The bank has been managing gold transfer by which Iran has received payments for oil sales. This was the only way to circumvent US sanctions against Iran and a very profitable business for Turkey. By targeting the bank they have also targeted US-Turkey relations by emphasizing how Turkey has been breaching the sanctions.

In addition, the Gulenists have gained favour of the Zionist lobbies such as the America Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This Israeli front group has been lobbying against the Halk Bank for a year and it is not a secret that the Gulenists have good relations with the Zionist lobby. Considering the influence of the Zionist lobby on US politics, gaining their favour would have been extremely helpful for the Gulen movement in their quest to topple Erdogan.

The police in January also raided the IHH offices that have been blacklisted by Israel since it attacked the Mavi Marmara in May 2010. Nine Turkish citizens, one of them also an American citizen, were shot and killed by the invading Israeli commandoes at point blank range. As part of al-Qaeda investigation the police raided IHH’s depots and offices and arrested one IHH worker in relation to al-Qaeda investigation.

Since than the Gulen movement has been targeting soft spots of the government to discredit Turkey abroad. It does not take too much effort to achieve this considering Turkey’s strained relations with neighbouring countries Syria, Iraq and Iran as well as other Muslim countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In this regard especially in the wake of Geneva-2 conference, Turkish police in the Syrian border areas have stopped several trucks. They have allegedly been carrying weapons to some of the Syrian rebel groups that are under the influence of Turkey, and accompanied by agents of the Turkish intelligence service (MIT).

According to Turkish law, the police are not allowed to search any MIT convoys without permission of the prime minister but in the past few weeks the police have insisted on several occasions to search trucks en route to the Syrian border. They have had heated exchanges with MIT agents. On two occasions, they managed to search the trucks and found military equipment in them. This was a major embarrassment for the Turkish government prior to the Geneva-2 talks.

The government could not deny the weapons transportation and claimed that they were going to the Syrian Turcomans. Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Āla in response to media queries announced that the trucks were “carrying equipment to Syrian Turcomans.”

Second, the Gulenists have been targeting the Turkish economy. One of the reasons why the AKP has gained such popular support was the rapidly growing economy and improvement in living standards. Therefore, if the AKP is to be toppled the public must be convinced that the economy is going downhill. Since the operation was first started on December 17, the Turkish lira has lost more than 10% in value against the US dollar. Major projects and bids have been postponed and an atmosphere of uncertainty has been created that has given the impression that the country is moving toward economic instability.

Some of this is caused by real concern among people due to political confrontation between the AKP and the Gulenists but some of it is artificial and there is strong evidence indicating that certain sections of the Turkish business elite have sided with the Gulenists and have been manipulating the market to destabilize the economy.

In January some recorded phone conversations of Fetullah Gulen leaked through Twitter revealed that the Gulenists have been working in close cooperation with wealthy Turkish elites. These elites have been at odds with Erdogan as he has stripped their privileges by which they were multiplying their wealth.

Although there is a carefully planned and executed plot against Erdogan’s government, it is unthinkable that he would give up without a fight. Erdogan is known as a political warrior and owes his reputation and success to his unyielding personality and political victories scored against formidable foes.

His initial confusion gave the impression that he was caught unprepared and might lose his job. But he quickly recovered and first tried to fend off the attacks. He immediately reshuffled his cabinet and removed the ministers who were allegedly involved in corruption. He replaced them with his most trusted and skilled comrades and put together a war cabinet. Thereafter, he has started taking on the Gulen movement’s members who have infiltrated state institutions. He called them “the parallel state” and promised “he would track them down to their dens.” His newly appointed interior minister has so far replaced around 2,500 police officers. Almost every senior police officer in every corner of Turkey has been removed and replaced by a new one.

According to Turkish media reports, the MIT has been gathering information about “the parallel state” and has compiled a list of those working for it. Every police officer whose name is on that list has now been reassigned to less sensitive work. This was soon expanded to other state institutions and a colossal reassignment process is underway to defang “the parallel state.” The government is now planning to change the law to remove members of the Gulen movement from the judiciary and a new bill is before the National Assembly to empower the government to achieve this goal.

However, these are only measures taken by the government in response to the Gulenist attack. The main aim of the government is to cripple the Gulenists through designating the movement’s political wing as an illegal group and prosecute them. Thanks to high-level defections from the group and investigative work of the MIT, the government has more than enough evidence against them. But since the group holds crucial posts in the judiciary the outcome of such a move is obvious. The government is, therefore, planning as a first step to “clean up” the judiciary and then move against the Gulenists to finish them off.

But this will not be the end of the war. The Gulenists have been working behind the scenes for than 50 years for this showdown. They are very strong and resilient; even if they lose their political wing their powerful media and NGOs can continue to pressure the government in the wake of local elections. Although, the AKP has all the benefits of the state against the Gulen movement, as a political party it is still vulnerable to a well-orchestrated political campaign. Therefore, the decisive moment in this struggle will be Election Day.

If the AKP scores a victory in the elections, by holding on to their previous gains — especially the two major cities of Istanbul and Ankara — then this would perhaps lead to the end of the Gulen movement. Their members would be seriously demoralized and they would lose their aliases and would not be able to cope with open warfare with the government in power. If the AKP loses, this would be considered a victory for the Gulen movement. Consequently the AKP ranks will begin to melt down which may eventually pave the way for the end of the AKP.

According to recent surveys, Erdogan still has overwhelming popular support and AKP votes are at the same level as the previous election. However, there are still two months to go and nobody knows what surprises may lay ahead for Erdogan.

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