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 Gulen, has begun to expose the massive rule-of-law violations that these two groups employed to consolidate power. Prosecutors widely thought to be Gulen sympathizers launched a wide-ranging corruption probe that has ensnared four ministers and reaches all the way to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son.Erdogan and his advisers have hit back. They accuse the Gulenists 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 the 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 Gulenist police, prosecutors and media. But they had crucial support from Erdogan’s government, which put its weight behind them. The Erdogan camp’s current effort to wash its hands of these trials and put the full blame on the Gulenists is disingenuous to say the least.
Erdogan 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” plot came out, Erdogan lent credence to them by saying he had been aware of such plots. His ministers attacked defendants and pilloried a lone judge who issued a pretrial ruling in their favor.
Beyond such public statements, the Erdogan 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 Gulenists or ready to do their bidding. Endless complaints about flagrant violations of the rule of law fell on deaf ears.
Erdogan 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 Gulenists have established a state within the state. The reason for the conversion is clear: Erdogan needs to isolate and embarrass the Gulenists, with whom he is now engaged in a bitter struggle for power.
The Gulenists have dressed up their campaign against Erdogan 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 Erdogan 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 coups – which is to say, not much at all. But Erdogan is the one who gave a pass to the Gulen movement in the first place.
More than three years ago, Erdogan 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 ultrasecularist 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, Erdogan has fewer good options, but he could still turn the situation around. Gulenist 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. Erdogan 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 Erdogan go down in flames; so all would want something in return for joining a coalition. Those concessions would be the necessary price for Erdogan 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 historians will pass on his leadership.
Unfortunately, Erdogan 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 Gulenists that are reminiscent of Gulenist tactics. He seems to believe that he can retain enough popularity to ride out the crisis without expanding his coalition.
The battle between Erdogan and the Gulen movement has escalated so much that it is hard to imagine reconciliation. The good news is this tooth-and-nail fight lays bare the corruption and judicial manipulation on which Erdogan’s regime is based. The bad news is regardless of who wins, Turkish democracy will be the loser – at least in the short run, until democratic forces emerge.
Dani Rodrik, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, is the author of “The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).