The dramatic battle between Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its erstwhile ally, the “Hizmet” religious movement led by the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, has begun to expose the massive rule-of-law violations that these two groups employed to consolidate their power. Prosecutors widely thought to be Gülen sympathizers have launched a wide-ranging corruption probe that has so far ensnared four ministers and reaches all the way to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son.
Erdoğan and his advisers have now hit back. They accuse the Gülenists of mounting a “bureaucratic coup” and engaging in a wide range of dirty tricks, from “planting evidence” against generals who were convicted last year of plotting to overthrow Erdoğan’s government to “extensive unauthorized wiretap[ping].”
Turkey’s landmark trials of the alleged military-coup plotters are now widely recognized for what they were – witch hunts based on evidence that was flimsy at best, and often simply concocted. The trials were stage-managed by Gülenist police, prosecutors, and media. But they had crucial support from Erdoğan’s government, which put its weight behind them. The Erdoğan camp’s current effort to wash its hands of these trials and put the full blame on the Gülenists is disingenuous to say the least.
Erdoğan once famously declared that he was the prosecutor on the “Ergenekon” case, which was supposedly aimed at exposing and combating the Turkish “deep state” composed of military officials and secular nationalists, but that targeted a wide range of political opponents. When the horrifying – but entirely fabricated – documents behind the generals’ fictitious “Sledgehammer” coup plot came out, Erdoğan lent credence to them by saying that he had been aware of such plots. His ministers attacked the defendants and pilloried the lone judge who issued a pre-trial ruling in their favor.
Beyond such public statements, the Erdoğan government did everything in its power to ensure that these and other political trials (including a massive one involving hundreds of Kurdish activists) would proceed to their preordained conclusion. In particular, the higher echelons of the judiciary were filled with judges who were either Gülenists or ready to do their bidding. Endless complaints about flagrant violations of the rule of law fell on deaf ears.
Erdoğan and his advisers sound very different these days. The new line is that these trials were marred by irregularities, that there had been a plot against the military, and that the Gülenists have established a state within the state. The reason for the conversion is clear: Erdoğan needs to isolate and embarrass the Gülenists, with whom he is now engaged in a bitter struggle for power.
The Gülenists have dressed up their campaign against Erdoğan in the guise of a corruption probe. No one who is familiar with Turkey would be surprised to learn that there was large-scale corruption surrounding construction projects. But the corruption probe is clearly politically motivated, and Erdoğan is right to question the prosecutors’ motives. The current round of judicial activism is as much about rooting out corruption as previous rounds were about prosecuting the “deep state” and real coups – which is to say, not much at all. But Erdoğan is the one who gave a free pass to the Gülen movement in the first place.
More than three years ago, Erdoğan had a golden opportunity in the aftermath of the August 2010 constitutional referendum. His handy win confirmed that he was securely in power and had little to fear from the military and other elements of the ultra-secularist old guard. He could have renounced the judicial dirty tricks and media manipulation that had enabled his regime to take hold. At the time, I wrote that if he did not change course, “the country will descend deeper into authoritarianism, political divisions will become irreconcilable, and yet another political rupture may become inevitable.” Alas, that prediction has now been fulfilled.
Today, Erdoğan has fewer good options, but he could still turn the situation around. Gülenist machinations in the judiciary and other parts of the bureaucracy have created a broad spectrum of opposition; pretty much everyone – nationalists, Kurdish activists, secularists, traditional Islamists, socialists, and liberals – has been at the receiving end of these intrigues at one time or another. Erdoğan could, in principle, mobilize a coalition that transcends his own AKP to support reforms aimed at returning the judiciary to its proper role.
Of course, none of these groups would mind watching Erdoğan go down in flames; so all of them would want something in return for joining such a coalition. Those concessions would be the necessary price for Erdoğan to pay – and just desserts for leading Turkey into its present mess. But at least he would have the chance to ameliorate the harsh judgment that historians will pass on his leadership.
Unfortunately, Erdoğan seems intent on missing this opportunity as well. He has chosen to respond by tightening his autocratic grip, with the body that appoints prosecutors and judges set to become a mere appendage of the justice ministry. His supporters have been launching smear campaigns against Gülenists that are reminiscent of Gülenist tactics. He seems to believe that he can retain enough popularity to ride out the crisis without expanding his coalition.
The battle between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement has escalated to the point where it is hard to imagine a reconciliation. The good news is that this tooth-and-nail fight is laying bare the corruption and judicial manipulation on which Erdoğan’s regime was based. The bad news is that regardless of who wins, Turkish democracy will be the loser – at least in the short run, until truly democratic forces emerge.