Turkey has been in the throes of a massive corruption scandal affecting the country’s political leadership for more than a month now.
Every day new revelations appear to surface, with arguments and counter-arguments spread out across the Turkish media, followed by countless dismissals and reassignments affecting members of the security forces and the judiciary.
Turkey’s current government, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has been steering the state’s ship for over a decade now. Headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the AKP is the last surviving active part of Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (RP), suppressed in 1997.
Since its inception, Erdoğan’s party has been successful in portraying itself as a pure and clean political entity (qualities conveyed in the Turkish word ak [clean], so cunningly employed by Erdoğan and his henchmen), as a political party untouched by the corruption and venality so characteristic of traditional Turkish politics – one need but think back the Susurluk scandal of the mid-‘90s.
Tayyip Erdoğan founded the party on 14 August, 2001, and unencumbered by smelly reputations or memories of shady deals made in recent memory, the AKP shot to power a year later, gaining a 34 percent share of the vote in the November, 2002, elections.
As a new, dynamic and, significantly, overtly Muslim party, the AKP appealed to large swathes of the electorate, disappointed by the country’s traditional political parties and their dishonest leadership. From those early days, Erdoğan and his AKP have gone from strength to strength, increasing their share of the vote in each successive election and thereby actually establishing a veritable one-party state in the process.
As seems quite understandable, there have been voices arguing that the ascendancy of the AKP has dramatically altered Turkey’s make up and outlook. For instance, the director of the Turkish Media Project at the MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute, which have been not once accused of a biased representation of the region’s media) Rachel Sharon-Krespin disparaged that “Turkey is no longer the secular and democratic country that it [once] was.” In spite of such sentiments, that are also shared by large sections of the Turkish electorate, the party seemed beyond reproach to its supporters, voters, and backers. Still, Erdoğan’s autocratic leadership style and the party’s obvious closer than close links to certain segments of the business community seemed to reinforce some members of the Turkish public’s reservations.
But all this changed on Thursday, December 17, 2013, when the country’s chief public prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, who has in the past been compared to the Italian Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro, started an operation handled by the Turkish police that led to the arrests of nearly 50 people at Halkbank over corruption allegations in the government tender process – the arrested included the sons of two cabinet ministers.
These operations were apparently the result of two years of investigative work on the part of Öz and prosecutor Celal Kara on various issues relating to such illegal practices as bribery, the laundering of dirty money, gold smuggling, the sale of real estate counter to legal procedures, the presence of certain amounts of money with no clear provenance, and the granting of Turkish nationality to foreigners by extra-legal means.
All in all, the scandal is said to involve more that $100 million and the image of shoe-boxes filled with money has easily captured the public’s imagination eagerly following the execution of this graft probe. The government immediately reacted by sacking the chief of the Istanbul Security forces Hüseyin Çapkın and replacing him with the governor of Aksaray, Selami Altınok.
This action was seen by many as a direct government intervention aimed at thwarting the course of the ongoing corruption investigation, which has by now become a far-reaching scandal actually threatening the government and receiving the popular tag #AKPgate on the internet and in social media.
Far from abating, in Turkey today the ripple effect of the scandal is widening, managing to touch upon more and more parties, while the government appears determined to obstruct the course of justice. Still, following Tayyip Erdoğan’s return from Pakistan, where he had been for a two-day visit meeting Nawaz Sharif and strengthening business ties between the two countries (23-24 December), three ministers resigned – Minister of the Interior Muammer Güler, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan and Environment Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar.
In conjunction with these high-profile resignations, the PM also went ahead and executed a cabinet reshuffle that had been on the cards for some time now – appointing close loyalists to key positions, such as the non-parliamentarian Efkan Ala to replace Muammer Güler.
The leader of the opposition CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in response laconically commented that these resignations came a “bit late.” The PM himself then declared that he is the real target of this conspiracy, and as if to prove the point, his son Bilal was summarily charged in a second wave of arrest warrants in connection with the corruption allegations. This second investigation has now been stopped in its tracks. And the PM’s son has so far successfully evaded capture and remains at large.
The PM himself fanned the flames of conspiracy theories when he proclaimed that the investigations regarding corruption within the ranks of the AKP government were “the work of internal and external dark groups,” adding that “Corruption is but the outside shell of the [whole] affair.” These words were aimed at creating the impression that Turkey’s police forces are not under the government’s direct authority, but instead respond to dark external forces – external actors quite well-known to Erdoğan himself.
Since these early pronouncements, the PM has considerably raised the stakes actually talking about the existence of a “parallel structure” inside the Turkish state – a choice of words that carefully avoided the expression ‘deep state’. This term, the ‘deep state’, was previously used to describe a nefarious cabal of powerful secular nationalists supposedly active inside Turkey’s state structure and current ever since Ecevit's term as prime minister in the 1970s.
The ‘deep state’ was purportedly laid to rest as a result of the many high-profile court cases pursued during the AKP’s reign. In 2007, Tayyip Erdoğan made a memorable pronouncement on Turkish television channel Kanal 7: the deep state “does exist. It has always has - and it did not start with the Republic; it dates back to Ottoman times. It's simply a tradition. It must be minimized, and if possible even annihilated.”
Then, documents detailing an alleged planned coup to oust the AKP, but also to undermine the so-called Gülen Movement supportive of the government, were leaked to certain newspapers, and publication was followed by the prosecution of the landmark Ergenekon trials, which eventually led to stiff sentences for about 330 military officers and others detained on related charges. In other words, the fight against the ‘Deep State’ had led Tayyip Erdoğan to cooperate with Fethullah Gülen “and his shadowy, globe-spanning empire,” as the so-called Gülen Movement was recently described by the respectable bimonthly publication Foreign Policy.
And now, the PM is suggesting that a similar, yet utterly different, cabal is conspiring to bring his AKP government down – a ‘Parallel Structure’ within the Turkish government. The president of the Parliamentary Constitutional Commission Burhan Kuzu, using the social media website Twitter to this effect, provided support for the prime minister’s assertion indicating that a report had been presented detailing the identities of 2,000 individuals active in this ‘Parallel Structure’ – including high-ranking police officers, bureaucrats, judges, prosecutors, members of the press as well as businessmen.
These individuals have all been linked to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, which is now being called Hizmet. Fethullah Gülen used to be a state employee, a state-appointed imam or prayer leader and preacher in mosque services to be precise. He came under the influence of the writings of Said Nursî (1877-1960, also known as Bediüzzaman or ‘Marvel of the Age’ in Turkey) and his monumental Risale-i Nûr (Treatise of Light) and, in due time, rose to the position of nominal head of the Nûr movement.
Subsequently, this movement changed its colors somewhat and its followers became known as Fethullahçı in Turkey and internationally as Gülenist, clearly indicating that the figure of Fethullah Gülen, who is also known as Fethullah Hoca (teacher, master), had got hold of the movement and its assets. On a popular level, he is extremely well-loved and even venerated, particularly as he delivers his sermons with such conviction and passion, oftentimes breaking down in tears.
Whereas the Hizmet Movement itself is estimated to dispose of a membership ranging between 3 and 6 million, many households in Turkey are equally dedicated to the figure of the Gülen (also called hocaefendi or ‘master lord’) without any formal affiliation however. He has been residing in the US since 1999, where he traveled for medical treatment.
At the time, Turkey was governed by a coalition led by the veteran politician Bülent Ecevit (1925-2006) – a left-leaning figure with a particular distaste for religious agitation – and when video footage surfaced that showed the preacher advocating his followers to infiltrate the corridors of power in Turkey, Gülen was summarily accused of trying to undermine the supposed ‘secular’ principles of the Republic of Turkey. The tape shows the preacher literally advising his followers to “move in the arteries of the system without anyone noticing your existence until you reach all the power centers . . . Until the conditions are ripe, [the followers] must continue like this . . . You must wait until such time as you have gotten all the state power, until you have brought to your side all the power of the constitutional institutions in Turkey.”
The self-proclaimed ‘secular’ elite in Turkey panicked straight away, and in 2000, Fethullah Gülen was tried in absentia by a state security court – for trying to replace Turkey’s ‘secular’ government with an Islamic one.
Since then, Gülen has been residing on a large, rural estate in eastern Pennsylvania – in the Golden Generation Worship and Retreat Center on Mt. Eaton Road in Saylorsburg. As a result, the state of Pennsylvania became very well-known in Turkey and jokes concerning news from the Keystone State, indicating either approval or rejection by the Gülen, abounded in the written press and on television. As such, he was really reputed to set Turkey’s political agenda from afar.
In addition, Gülen also managed to construct a veritable business empire from his retreat – his followers have established over 1,000 charter schools around the world, in addition to the countless dershane high school and university placement exam preparatory schools in Turkey (which allegedly service 75 percent of Turkey's 2 million dershane students), and dormitories, as well as a vast media empire containing such popular newspapers like Zaman and Today’s Zaman on top of such television channels like Samanyolu in Turkey and Ebru TV, serving Canada and the United States, as well as the Cihan News Agency.
And now, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is actually accusing Gülen and his followers, though not mentioning the preacher and his supporters by name, of having built a ‘Parallel Structure’ within the confines of the Turkish state and government – of having infiltrated Turkey’s Security Forces, Judiciary, and Military. This leads to the strange realization that Erdoğan is now condemning a development that Ecevit had warned about at the end of last century.
In 2006, Adil Serdar Saçan, the erstwhile head of Istanbul police force's Anti-Smuggling and Organized Crime Department whose team exposed the above-mentioned criminal network known as Ergenekon in 2001, declared on television that “those in the [Police] directorate who did not have ties to the [Gülen] organization were all pensioned off or fired in 2002 when the AKP came to power . . . After 2002, the AKP . . . promoted only those officers whose files were tainted with allegations that they were engaged in reactionary Islamist activities . . .”. Does this now mean that the chickens have come home to roost at long last? The whistleblower Saçan himself was also arrested as a member of the shadowy conspiracy known as Ergenekon in September 2008, and in August 2013 sentenced to 14 years and six months in prison.
The government appears to have done all it can in its power to prevent the continuation of the ongoing graft probe. As reported by Reuters, “during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara January 14, 2014. Erdogan looks to have the upper hand in a civil war rocking Turkey's political establishment, but his bid to break the influence of a potent Islamic cleric could roll back reforms and undermine hard-won business confidence.”
The PM vowed to have no mercy when dealing with “the illegal gang within the state” and he continued as follows: “Our democracy escaped the largest, heaviest and wickedest coup attempt ever. December 17 passed into history as a black stain on Turkey’s democracy and rule of law. The coup attempt of December 17 has left all other coups of the past behind . . . I will not bring the entire judiciary under suspicion. I respect those who are honestly doing their job. But those who are linked with this illegal organization will not be forgiven by history. It’s been revealed how they set a trick within the state. We have to disclose all of them.”
To an outsider, it might seem surprising that, rather than applauding the judiciary's attempt to fight corruption within Turkey's government, Erdoğan has now in fact determined that the graft probe initiated by Zekeriya Öz, an erstwhile AKP ally as he has been instrumental in the successful prosecution of the Ergenekon case, is nothing less than a "coup attempt," an illegal effort at overthrowing Turkey's elected government.
In this way, Erdoğan has made his position clear. For his part, Fethullah Gülen has now also ended his silence, "talking" to the Wall Street Journal via e-mail, and saying that the "Turkish people . . . are upset that in the last two years democratic progress is now being reversed."
This fierce struggle for the ‘soul of Turkey’ that is now being fought between Erdogan’s followers (AKP) and members of the Gülen Community (Cemaat) could very well be over now, as the government is now planning to reform the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors and the result at the ballot box later on this year might just reflect the overwhelming sway the AKP appears to have over the country and its population.
Alternatively, the huge popularity enjoyed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan might prove to be no match for the veneration bestowed upon the faraway figure of Fethullah Gülen, the hocaefendi whose heartfelt sermons seldom fail to move his listeners’ heart strings. Even though Gülen shied away from openly supporting the opposition in his interview with the Wall Street Journal via email, he nevertheless stated that, "When the opportunities come, Cemaat participants, just like any other citizen will make their choices based on their values. It is possible that people who share core values will make choices along the same lines."
In the newspaper Zaman, the journalist Hüseyin Gülerce indicated recently that the ongoing struggle between the AKP and the followers of Fethullah Gülen will last for another year, only to be concluded after the presidential elections, when the Turkish population will make the correct choice with the "help of Allah."
This means that the Turkish economy, which has already been severely shaken by the scandal and the subsequent power struggle with the Turkish Lira sinking to an all-time low and borrowing costs surging and stocks slumping, will have to weather a most inclement climate for the foreseeable future, which, in turn, might be another argument against a vote for the AKP and its charismatic leader.
Will Tayyip Erdoğan still be leading Turkey's ship in a year's time or will the population at large have given its support to an opposition leader? Will Turkey be led by President Erdoğan or will the current parliamentary system continue under the leadership of another politician steering Turkey on an altogether different course? The Turkish population will decide by means of ballots cast and votes counted.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.