Commentary

Erdogan Embattled

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Erdogan, is facing the biggest challenge to his rule yet. Following a massive corruption probe which forced the resignation of several individuals inside his administration, Mr. Erdogan has sacked or reassigned hundreds of police and tried to redirect the ire of the judiciary, all the while pushing back against accusations of corruption and mismanagement. For his part, the Turkish prime minister has characterized the corruption probe as an attempted “soft coup” orchestrated by a “parallel organization” within the Turkish state with undue influence over the judiciary (by which he means his party’s former allies in the Gulen movement). Recent developments have seen Mr. Erdogan turn to the military — which Gulen loyalists helped him to politically defang — for support. As a result, many regional commentators have raised questions and expressed concerns about the potential damage that such maneuvering will have on Turkey’s political system and the country’s institutional landscape.

Judging from news coming out of Turkey, the fallout from the December 17 events continues unabated. In an article echoing language used by the government, the Turkish daily Sabah reported additional details of the extent of the penetration of the Turkish state by what some have characterized as a state within the state: “The Dec 17 operation to topple the ruling AK Party in Turkey through the arrest of certain people, including the sons of three ministers, the head of state-owned Halkbank, and renowned businessmen, revealed that the parallel organization within the state had illegally wiretapped 200 Turkish businessmen. The current Interior Minister of Turkey Efkan Ala, stated that illegal organizations within the state wiretapped Turkish businessmen in Mersin, a city in the south-east of Turkey. Right after Ala's statement, it was revealed that approximately 200 businessmen in Erzurum, an east Anatolian city, had also fallen prey to the illegal wiretapping.”

All of this has caused some to wonder whether we are witnessing a retrenchment of Turkish democracy. For example, the Peninsula editorial suggests the recent events highlight the tenuous nature of the country’s democratic institutions: “The current crisis in Turkey has a muti-faceted character. The army, kept confined to its barracks for the last few years, may have been itching to make its present felt, howsoever meekly....Erdogan’s troubles — from the Rezi Park protests to the corruption scandal — are a sign of certain weak links inside the government. The situation shows that Turkey’s democracy has not matured to an extent where institutions of the state evolve to find themselves deeply entrenched in the system of government so that it is hard to shake them.”

Meanwhile, Sevgi Akarcesme, writing for another Turkish daily — Today’s Zaman — worries that Mr. Erdogan’s actions in response to the revelations point out weaknesses in the country’s separation of powers: “As we end the year 2013, not only are the hopes for a new constitution dead since Parliament failed to agree on more than 60 articles in the last two years, but so are the hopes for a more democratic country....What is worse is that the prime minister holds up the ballot box in the face of any dissidence proving that his only criteria has become the election results in a reductionist understanding of democracy. He keeps asking the people to punish even the judiciary in the elections in March! It is the end of 2013 and Turkey has still had not established separation of powers, an intrinsic element of democracy.”

Mr. Erdogan’s swift move against the police and various elements within the judiciary in response to the corruption probe has also become a matter of concern for many who see it as an attempt by the prime minister to cover-up his government’s corruption problem. Ihsan Yilmaz, in a recent op-ed, takes issue with Mr. Erdogan’s use of “media and state power to continue his psychological war campaign to dodge questions about alleged corruption cases related to some of his ministers, very close friends and even relatives....As the Gezi incidents very convincingly have shown, Erdogan only cares about the 50 percent and does not care what the rest thinks. So this is what he is now doing. Nevertheless, the panic his government is currently exhibiting suggests that his voters may not be convinced this time.”

Whether justified in his actions or not, it is clear the Turkish prime minister’s actions are not without consequence. For Cihan’s Yavuz Baydar, Mr. Erdogan’s actions against the judiciary can only have a deleterious effect on the Turkish society: “The country's 12-year-long, mostly admired and at-times-too-exciting cycle is over, despite the firm ground it has stood on for so long....Does Erdogan realize that he is digging a hole for himself? Apparently not. He has shown once more that he will remain cynical and raise the stakes to dangerous levels. It is an open invitation to old Turkey. He piled up all the issues on the table and left them spread out on its surface. Erdogan has failed badly at delivering a democratic constitution. He has failed and lost. Turkey will pay.”

According to Joost Lagendikj, who also writes for Turkish daily Cihan, the most troubling development is Mr. Erdogan’s newfound affection for the military, with the prime minister going so far as to be open to the idea of re-opening the trials of several dozen retired and active military officials accused of orchestrating a coup against the government in the past: “Nobody should have any illusions about this remarkable U-turn by a government that, in the recent past, strongly welcomed the same convictions they now want to overturn….Retrying coup perpetrators is just another way of distracting people's attention from the corruption investigations....What we are now about to witness, however, is an arbitrary intrusion by the executive into the domain of the judiciary for reasons that have nothing to do with correcting past injustices and everything to do with a blatant attempt to escape justice.”

The question on everybody’s mind now is whether Mr. Erdogan will survive the scandal politically as he prepares to run for president later this year. Hurriyet Daily News’ Semih Idiz believes the prime minister would have been better off letting the police and the judiciary do their work, which would have elevated Mr. Erdogan’s status in the country: “One cannot help wonder if it would not have been politically wiser for Erdogan to accept the corruption allegations and let the judiciary and police do their work. He would also have gained respect for this. The way he has been behaving, however, has given the public the distinct impression that he has something to hide. But surely he is aware that this is Turkey, where everything becomes public eventually, one way or another, no matter how much you try to suppress the truth.”

Finally, according to reports on the Turkish news site Good Morning Turkey, several opposition figures have begun asking for Mr. Erdogan’s indictment over the corruption scandal, claiming the prime minister’s attempts to cover them up indicate he might have something to hide: “The prime minister will stand before judges over corruption claims, on the day when clean politics prevail in the country, main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kilicdaroglu has vowed....He described the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a ‘completely corrupt’ party that has failed to keep its promises in the fight against corruption. ‘For the very first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, a prime minister is defending corruption and bribery,’ Kilicdaroglu said.”


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