On Dec. 17, the Turkish public and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were shocked by the news that a major corruption operation had nabbed three sons of Erdogan’s cabinet members, a prominent businessman, a mayor belonging to his party, a bank manager and a slew of government officials. Almost immediately Turkish pundits pointed fingers at the secretive Islamist Gulen movement for triggering this investigation that has so embarrassed the government.
No one can really divine whether this allegation is true, but in a world where perceptions rule the day, this matters little. The investigation will be perceived as another battle in a war that no one can win. The only question is who will lose less? Erdogan is far more powerful than Fethullah Gulen, a charismatic preacher on self-imposed exile on a farm in Pennsylvania since 1999, when the then-powerful Turkish military sought to charge him with undermining the secular order. But Erdogan has also far more at stake as an elected leader and, therefore, is likely to emerge as the bigger loser.
Ironically, the Gulenist movement with its vast array of private schools in Turkey and around the world, including the United States, as well as its media empire and affiliated business organizations, had been a close ally of Erdogan. From the start, the Gulen movement embraced the conservative and Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP). They not only had a similar worldview but also had one common and powerful enemy: the military. It took almost nine years for the intrusive Turkish military, an organization that dominated domestic and foreign policy, to be defeated politically and pushed back into its barracks.
With the military gone, the two movements began to suspect each other. The Erdogan government felt increasingly irked by the power of the Gulen movement, which was seen as overreaching by getting sympathetic prosecutors and judges to punish its critics in the media and elsewhere. The Gulen movement grew increasingly fearful of Erdogan’s accumulation of power and his total domination of the Turkish political scene. It is not just corruption allegations — bandied about for years — but rather that in the face of a hapless and ineffective opposition, the AKP and Erdogan in particular came to view Turkey as their private property.
In their budding confrontation, both sides made critical mistakes. The Gulen movement, unhappy at the opening to the Kurds and specifically the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), decided to target Erdogan’s chief Kurdish interlocutor and one of his true confidants, his intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan. Erdogan protected Fidan but determined to cut the Gulen movement down to size first by accelerating the purges of its followers from state institutions. His coup de grace came when he decided, with the stroke of pen, to eliminate the “dershanes,” a Gulen empire of preparatory schools for hundreds of thousands of students planning to take university entrance exams.
If anything, this effort at eliminating one of the Gulen movement’s most lucrative enterprises solidified the movement and its opposition to Erdogan. Just as the Fidan case was a colossal error on the part of the Gulen movement, this was an error of similar scale by Erdogan. The ensuing furor caused him to postpone the implementation of his decision.
It is impossible to say today whether this year-old corruption investigation was initiated by the Gulen movement or simply by honest prosecutors doing their job. Nonetheless, just as with the Gezi protests earlier this year, the AKP supporters have come up with elaborate if not pathetic conspiracy theories, which of course include Americans, Israelis, foreign news agencies and what not. What cannot be hidden is the severity of the blow suffered by the AKP; on the eve of the March municipal elections this weakens and distracts Erdogan, increases the chances of surprises in the form of opposition victories in Istanbul and Ankara and creates further discontent and divisions within the AKP.
There are those who are watching from the sidelines, especially hard-core secularists, deploring both sides and enjoying this mother of all battles. They are surely to be disappointed as Erdogan is likely to survive this crisis. He is still far too powerful and popular and controls vast chunks of the media today. He has been diminished and the investigation may ensnare other higher-ups. Crisis management, as seen in the Gezi protests, however, is not his and his party’s strong suit. Both are likely to commit more errors, especially if they persist in believing in the machinations of evil cabals. Bad analysis produces bad policy outcomes. The Gulen movement will also survive irrespective of any retaliation that may come from the government. But the perception that it is a well-funded, secretive and unaccountable movement will also increase. Still, it also has established too deep societal roots to disappear anytime soon.
While there may be two losers, there is also a real winner: President Abdullah Gul, who is expected to make way for Erdogan’s ascension to the presidency next summer. It is no secret that Gul would like to return to the prime ministry, which represents something of a challenge to Erdogan. Executive power resides mostly with the prime minister and Erdogan would rather have someone who is pliable occupy this post. Increasingly, AKPers made uncomfortable by Erdogan’s power grab have been making a pilgrimage to the presidential palace to ask Gul to intervene or, better, re-enter politics. Gul has shown great dexterity, calm and maturity during his stint in the presidency. So many have trekked up Cankaya Hill that the joke circulating in Ankara is that the presidency is the new “Wailing Wall.”
If this crisis results in re-establishing some balance and curtailing the power of increasingly unaccountable forces, then Turkish democracy may be the other winner.