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After local elections, Turkey is at a critical juncture

Major political developments in Turkey have brought the country to a critical juncture. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has been hit by a series of major blows during its third term. Although the Gezi Park protests, which were sparked by plans for urban development in central Istanbul in May 2013, were suppressed, the backlash against the government has continued.

In December, allegations of corruption brought Erdogan’s Cabinet and his acquaintances under suspicion. The prime minister had to dismiss half of his ministers, and the party lost some of its members.

The corruption scandal has shaken the AK Party at a time of increasing domestic unrest, deadlock in the European Union’s integration process, growing criticisms of foreign policy and diminishing international legitimacy.

The situation has escalated into political warfare between the AK Party and the Hizmet movement – the followers of Fethullah Gulen and the strongest religious movement in Turkey. Erdogan claims a group within Hizmet has created a parallel state by using its recruits within state institutions, and that it took refuge in the Hizmet movement to further its political ambitions. He accused this so-called parallel state of using the corruption scandal as cover for a coup against him.

Hizmet responded that corruption must be eradicated and that the prime minister must prove his claims of a parallel state. Then, before the March 30 local elections, Hizmet accused the government of pursuing a hidden agenda to incapacitate the movement. It also said it considered attempts to shut down private prep schools, a keystone of Hizmet’s domestic operations, to be part of this plan.

Despite these accusations, and the fact that Hizmet put all of its weight behind the political opposition, the elections on March 30 ended with a clear Erdogan victory, giving him the upper hand in the political struggle.

Both sides are now questioning everything the other has done, including all of their joint activities. This is the first time that the Hizmet movement’s presence within critical state institutions has been visible to the public.

The AK Party is pursuing alliances with other religious groups, the state’s security elite and other groups allegedly aggrieved by Hizmet. In turn, Hizmet has allied itself with the Republican People’s Party, but it did not prove effective in the elections.

There has been a flurry of allegations and accusations, along with leaked documents and voice recordings. Erdogan has stated several times that the “parallel state” is responsible for leaking state secrets and will be subject to legal action. All of this has resulted in a high level of political tension in Turkey.

Reducing the situation to a political tussle between two political groups misses the significance of the crisis. Turkey’s rapid development and demands for democracy in recent years have given rise to a fault line between state and people. The approaching presidential elections, which will mean considerable political change for Turkey (considering that Erdogan is serving his last term in parliament and has designs on the presidency), have further aggravated the situation. Ultimately, the crisis has broken out in the form of a struggle between AKP and Hizmet.

A Turkish proverb says there is goodness in what happens. The “goodness” here is that the crisis is forcing its own way out. There is an urgent need to ease the state-society tension, to reform the political system and administrative structures, to strengthen democratic institutions, and to enhance citizen participation in decision-making processes. Immediate measures guaranteeing different lifestyles, preserving diversity, ensuring freedom of speech and media, and creating room for individual and organized opposition would provide considerable relief.

For this to happen, Hizmet needs to rein in its operations, respecting the boundaries of a civilian movement and the AK Party needs to set aside its hegemonic inclinations and pursue reform and democratization. The alternative is a protracted struggle for survival by Hizmet, jeopardizing the AK Party’s legitimacy and popular support.

Interestingly, both sides see the reactivation of the EU integration process as an exit strategy, since it represents a road map for reform. They agree on the need to deal with Turkey’s problems through an innovative and problem-solving approach – ironically, while engaged in a struggle against one another.

The cycle of crisis and reform that has existed throughout Turkish history has been resurrected. As the recent election results proved, the AK Party has much of the political capacity needed to pursue a reformist agenda.

On the other hand, Hizmet has considerable civic capacity, guaranteeing societal backing and control of political projections.

The reasonable solution on the horizon is that both groups take self-correcting action in response to the crisis and provide an impetus for the restructuring and recalibration of Turkish politics.

Bulent Aras was director of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Center for Strategic Research, while also serving as chairman at the Diplomacy Academy. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2014, on page 7.

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Summary

Major political developments in Turkey have brought the country to a critical juncture.

The situation has escalated into political warfare between the AK Party and the Hizmet movement – the followers of Fethullah Gulen and the strongest religious movement in Turkey. Erdogan claims a group within Hizmet has created a parallel state by using its recruits within state institutions, and that it took refuge in the Hizmet movement to further its political ambitions.

All of this has resulted in a high level of political tension in Turkey.

Reducing the situation to a political tussle between two political groups misses the significance of the crisis.

The approaching presidential elections, which will mean considerable political change for Turkey (considering that Erdogan is serving his last term in parliament and has designs on the presidency), have further aggravated the situation. Ultimately, the crisis has broken out in the form of a struggle between AKP and Hizmet.

As the recent election results proved, the AK Party has much of the political capacity needed to pursue a reformist agenda.


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