After a decade of economic progress under an elected government, Turkey is facing a major political crisis. Turkey’s economic success under Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) has Islamist roots, was cited by many as an example of the potential for moderating Islamism through democracy. Erdogan was said to have provided good governance and opportunities to ordinary citizens that previously had been available to a privileged few.
But power corrupts, and the current government in Turkey has had absolute power in the absence of strong opposition and after winning a third term in 2011. Erdogan is currently facing corruption charges, which he attributes to either foreign powers (which includes the U.S. and Israel) or to the followers of Fethulleh Gulen, an Islamic scholar and social advocate. Gulen is a former ally of the government who has now distanced himself from the prime minister. Erdogan blames Gulen’s followers entrenched in Turkey’s judiciary and the police system of fabricating the corruption allegations.
The prime minister’s theories are clouded by discovery by investigators of shoe boxes filled with millions of dollars—a clear sign that something is amiss. Two of Erdogan’s Cabinet ministers have resigned after the arrest of their sons in connection with the investigation. One of the resigning ministers demanded Erdogan’s own resignation, hinting that the prime minister bore responsibility for the alleged corruption.
At the center of the main corruption investigation is the state bank, Halkbank, which has been a matter of concern for the U.S. as it helped Iran evade sanctions. It was also the subject of a letter by 46 members of the U.S. Congress. The business partner of one of the suspects was the subject of a New York Times article in the context of Iran evading sanctions in October.
Rather than doing what any democratic government should, Erdogan took steps to remove accountability: The police chiefs investigating corruption charges were removed and the prosecutor who started the case pacified. Erdogan accused the higher council of prosecutors and judges, as well as the court of appeals, of being part of the conspiracy against him. The court of appeals had annulled his attempted requirement for police investigators to inform politically-appointed superiors of any current or future investigations.
Turkey already ranks poorly in the media freedom index, and now, the media’s access to police has also been severely restricted. The prosecutor investigating a new corruption case that involved the prime minister’s son has just made a statement citing political pressure and obstruction of justice. Anyone in government bureaucracy or other institutions mustering the courage to speak against the government is being targeted and transferred or pacified.
Dissent against Erdogan has been simmering for a while because of his increased authoritarianism. From recent discourse on regulating student homes and the government’s heavy-handed reaction to Gezi Park protests, Erdogan increasingly runs Turkey like a dictator. Restrictions on freedom of press have been imposed through owner censorship and the prime minister’s tolerance for democratic opposition has visibly decreased. Many observers, including the former interior minister who resigned from AKP, have pointed to small oligarchic elite within the party leadership who control every decision.
The current unrest in Turkey is not about Gulen as much as it is about the judiciary, citizens and civil -society actors performing the role of checks and balances against government transgressions. Gulen supporters seem only to be a part of the larger section of the society that believes in the values of government transparency. The Gulen movement is a civil society initiative that advocates for democracy and social justice while maintaining personal religiosity. It is not a political party and Gulen or his key disciples have shown little interest in political office.
The Turkish history of imposed Jacobin Secularism ended up creating virtual segregation against observant Muslims. Gulen encouraged education as a platform for ending that discrimination and advocated social justice, arguing that separation of religion and state should not lead to the state excluding religious observance from the lives of its people.
Erdogan may be right about the Turkish judiciary and police having Gulen supporters. But that differs little from the police or judiciary in the U.S. having Catholics, Jews or evangelical Christians in their ranks. Gulen’s message of inclusive democracy has influenced a significant population in Turkey and those who share his beliefs, as well as those who are indifferent to or against them, are bound to be in a subset of any institution in Turkey.
Erdogan’s authoritarian style and the fact that he has been in power too long were bound to create a backlash at some point. That is now happening. The idea of seeing the emerging crisis in Turkey as a power struggle between two titans is glamorous. But the issue in Turkey seems to be checks and balances against government transgressions, not just a personal tiff between Erdogan and Gulen.