Erdogan and Gulen: A political battle through the courts

By Al Jazeera Center for Studies

In simultaneous dawn raids on 17 December 2013, Turkish police, acting on the orders of the leading public prosecutor in Istanbul, Zakaria Oz, arrested more than fifty people, including the mayor of Istanbul district Fatih; the head of one of the largest construction companies in the country; sons of the ministers of the interior, economy and the environment; a Turkish businessman of Azerbaijani origin; and the head of state-owned Khalq Bank, one of Turkey’s largest banks. The simultaneous arrests were alarming, but also significant given the links between this case and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which gained favour among a large number of Turks for its economic achievements over the past decade, as well as its fight against corruption.

On 25 December 2013, leaks from the office of Muammar Akash, another Istanbul public prosecutor, revealed that other arrest warrants had been issued against suspects in a second corruption case, including dozens of business leaders and government employees.

In the period between these dates, the corruption case had already morphed into a political crisis. The government decided to transfer dozens of Istanbul policemen, including the police chief, who had been suspected of exploiting their public positions for political purposes, or had allegedly been negligent. Istanbul’s chief public prosecutor intervened directly, assigning two additional public prosecutors to Oz’s cases, and transferring Akash’s case files to other prosecutors, after it was found that Akash had been involved in leaking information about the case to the media.

Since 17 December, Turkey has been witnessing a political and economic crisis. There is consensus that corruption is a major factor in the escalating conflict between the ruling AKP and the Fethullah Gulen group. The corruption cases emboldened opposition parties to demand the resignation of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while the crisis had a tangible impact on the economy, which had witnessed unprecedented economic prosperity for the past few years.

Political battle through the courts

Oz initiated three separate cases on 17 December, not one. First was a case regarding financial transactions between the Turkish-Azerbaijani businessperson and Iran, assisted by Khalq Bank. Second, a case regarding alleged facilitation by the Fatih mayor for the construction of a hotel atop the Marmara tunnel which links the Asian and European sides of the city under the Bosphorus strait. Some have alleged that the hotel would negatively impact the safety of the tunnel. Third, a case concerning a number of tenders floated by the government, in which senior politicians and governors offered facilitations to ensure specific companies would win.

Combining the three cases into one, with the consequent summoning of more than fifty persons for questioning, was done for dramatic effect, rather than for practicality; for political impact more than judicial necessity. Investigations into the cases began and ended at different times, while the announcement of the case and the launch of the arrests and the investigation started at once.

During the next two days, the arrests and summoning procedures continued and the number of suspects rose to sixty six. One puzzling aspect of the events was the revelation that the public prosecutor had instructed police officers to tap the suspects’ phones, and, in some cases, those of their spouses, up to ten months earlier, without these officers reporting to their direct seniors. Additionally, specific police personnel were conducting phone-tapping operations throughout the country, targeting party and government figures, and the headquarters of some businesses and political parties.

The case quickly found its way to the front pages of the opposition media, which volunteered to publish leaks from the case files, including the accusations that implicated four government ministers. The head of the opposition Republican People’s Party pre-empted the preliminary investigation results to demand the resignation of the government.

The first response from the government came via deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, who outlined the government’s support of the judiciary and anticorruption policy. He expressed his hope that, if any minister was summoned for questioning, the minister would resign and defend himself independently from his public post. However, Arinc did not hide his amazement at how the cases had been combined, the extent of the tapping, and the attempt by some people to pre-emptively judge all the suspects – and even some who were not listed in the case – before the preliminary results of the investigation had been released and before the case had reached the court.

On 18 December 2013, Erdogan made his first comment on the case, during a press conference with the visiting Hungarian prime minister. Erdogan said that fighting corruption had always been a cornerstone of his government’s policy, and that government would not have realised its achievements for the country, if it had not strongly opposed the legacy of corruption that it had inherited. He also said the government was determined to eradicate the power of the secret groups that were hiding within the administration. He did not mention the Gulen group by name, nor the link between Oz and the Gulen group, and none of the officials in his party referred to them. However, nobody doubted that the prime minister was referring to Gulen.

Thereafter, Akash, also known for being close to Gulen, leaked the second case to the media, before notifying the attorney general’s office in Istanbul. However, because the government had already transferred many officials and officers from the Istanbul police force who were known for their relationship with the Gulen group, and had also transferred the head of the Istanbul police for misconduct in monitoring and supervising his department, Akash could not enforce the arrest warrants. If they had been enforced, dozens of prominent businessmen might have been arrested, resulting in a political and economic meltdown. Because of Akash’s leaks, Istanbul’s attorney general transferred the case files to three other public prosecutors, and instructed that they decide in the matter by majority vote. In the following days, most of those summoned were released; some for lack of evidence and some pending trials.

The Gulen movement: A story of power

For months before the corruption cases surfaced, Turkish media had speculated about escalating tensions between the Gulen group and the government. Both prosecutors involved, and most of the policemen who executed their orders with utmost secrecy, were known to be either sympathisers of or close to the group. The crisis thus highlighted the rocky relationship between the AKP and the group.

The origin of the Gulen group dates back to the Nursi order, which was born out of the resistance of the Muslim cleric, Said Nursi (1896-1960), of Sufi Naqshabandi background, against the anti-Islam policies that the Turkish republic had adopted in its early decades. After Nursi’s death, his followers scattered into various groups, organisations, and cultural institutions. One was the Gulen group, led by former imam, Fethullah Gulen (born in 1941). Following an increase in the group’s influence and power, he has been keen on breaking from, rather than endorsing, his Nursi origins.

Gulen became active after the 1980 coup d’état, which targeted political Islam and leftists. Because his followers always claimed no interest in politics and focused on charitable and religious work, they enjoyed relative freedom. In the 1990s, the group became a source of anxiety for the military-related departments within the state, especially after a tape recording of a meeting between Gulen and some of his close followers surfaced. In it, he said his goal was to gradually change the system in Turkey from secularism to Islam. In 1999, believing that the country would fabricate charges against him, Gulen left the country for the USA, where he resides. Gulen, regarded as inspirational and almost infallible by his followers, seems to have a great deal of control over the group’s decisions.

Gulen was not on good terms with Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party, considered the incubator of the youth who established the AKP in 2001. However, there were common interests between the AKP and Gulen: weakening or removing the Kemalist tendency. They therefore cooperated, before the 2002 elections, and Gulen supported the AKP in the polls. In return, if the AKP was to gain power, it would allow the group to freely conduct its activities. Ever since, the group has shown support for the AKP, and benefited from the free environment and the end of persecution of Islamists, which, in turn, led to an increase in its educational and charitable activities, and its business and financial activities, both within and outside Turkey.

In May 2010, after the Mavi Marmara incident, when the ship was attacked by Israeli commandoes while on its way to Gaza, Gulen condemned AKP policies, and blamed Erdogan for the deaths of Turkish activists on board. Gulen said Erdogan sought conflict with Israel, leading AKP supporters to accuse Gulen of being supportive of Israel. In February 2012, one of Istanbul’s public prosecutors, considered close to Gulen, summoned the head of Turkish Intelligence, Hakan Fidan, known for being close to Erdogan, to testify in a case about a secret meeting Fidan had held in Norway with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), officially regarded in Turkey as a terrorist organisation, despite the meeting being a result of Erdogan’s instructions, and intended to be the beginning of a peace process on the Kurdish question. AKP followers said Israelis had spied on the meeting and had leaked the recording to Gulen’s group in order to hurt Fidan and the premier. Summoning Fidan was expected to lead to his arrest.

Erdogan subsequently changed the law governing intelligence work, thus closing the case. However, the incident was a significant indicator of a deepening chasm between the Gulen group and the AKP, and fuelled speculation that the group wanted to impose some sort of guardianship over the premier.

During November and December 2013, another crisis arose in relations between the parties, when the government announced its intention to close prep schools, which prepare students for university admission tests, and do not enjoy the status of private schools. Gulen’s group controls about twenty per cent of these schools and their huge financial revenues. Gulen opposed the government’s decision, and Gulen-supporting media ran a vocal and sustained campaign against Erdogan. Some Gulen confidantes announced that the group would not support the AKP in upcoming elections. When the prep schools crisis ended, the corruption crisis emerged. The rift between the groups widened.

AKP supporters insist Gulen wants a say in the state’s decisions, without forming a political party, having a political programme, or becoming accountable to the public. They also claim that the differences between the parties include: the Gulen group’s opposition to a solution to the Kurdish issue, which the government has been attempting for over two years; Turkey’s lukewarm relations with Israel; Turkish cooperation with Iran; and close relations between the AKP and the Islamist tendency in the Arab world. They argue that the increasing tension between the group and the AKP stems from a belief that the group’s future is linked to removing Erdogan from leading the AKP and the government, which would make the party more cooperative with Gulen. Because Erdogan intends to run for president later this year, this is their only chance to get him out of the political arena, the argument goes, since the post of the president is, traditionally, above political bickering. On the other hand, the Gulen group denies any involvement in politics and any plan to penetrate the Turkish state, saying that its adherents attained their posts because of their capabilities.

Political and economic effects

In the weeks after the corruption case, the government transferred hundreds of police officials suspected of being Gulen sympathisers. It is unclear whether this campaign will affect prosecutors and judges, but it is likely that the government will amend the structure of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors to make it less susceptible to political pressure. It is also addressing the privileges of the Council of State (the judicial body responsible for dealing with citizens’ disputes with the state), to curb its authority to contest legislation. If the government succeeds in passing these amendments, it is expected that Erdogan’s purge will reach both the courts and the prosecution.

Erdogan’s cabinet reshuffle on 25 December 2013, and involving ten ministers, was also a result of the political crisis. It was known that Erdogan would reshuffle his cabinet by the end of the year. However, the involvement of ministers’ sons in the corruption case widened the scope of the shake-up. The prime minister prevented his government from being accused of defending the suspects, and gave the implicated ministers room to defend themselves. The most significant development in the reshuffle was the appointment of Efkan Ala, ministerial council secretary and a close aide to Erdogan, as interior minister. Considered one of the most knowledgeable bureaucrats around Erdogan and a tough official, Ala is not a member of parliament. His appointment as interior minister is seen as an indicator of Erdogan’s intent to purify the ministry of the secret groups.

The glaring question that arise concern the impact of the breakdown of relations between the AKP and Gulen, and the corruption case, on the AKP’s electoral chances, especially in the local elections slated for March. There is a general exaggeration, promoted by the group, of Gulen’s electoral weight. Many estimates suggest that the entire electoral weight of the group does not exceed two per cent, and that not all its sympathisers will commit to the voting directives of the leadership, especially if the group decides to vote for the Republican People’s Party, which Gulen’s conservative voter base regards as being against the people’s Islamic identity. Further, Gulen’s supporters are spread throughout the country, which makes their effect in individual constituencies negligible, except in the case of tight competition between candidates.

It is not unlikely, however, that the corruption case will have an impact. The AKP prides itself on having a record of economic advancement, breaking the shackles of Turkey’s international loans, and fighting graft. Additionally, while the government’s position about the existence of a ‘deep state’ was acceptable to many people, some time must pass before voters’ opinions take shape, the negative impact can be measured, and the level of success of the AKP’s rhetoric can be determined. It is clear that the AKP’s vote is still above forty-five per cent, which will likely allow it to win most local elections if it manages to maintain its public approval ratings over the next three months.

Economically and financially, it was not possible that a corruption case of this size and a political scandal of this magnitude would pass without consequences, especially after judicial orders were executed to freeze the accounts of a number of prominent businesspeople. By the end of December 2013, the Turkish lira had lost ten per cent of its value, and some government sources estimated the GDP losses to be around 100 billion dollars. Early in January 2014, the lira and the financial markets showed some tenacity, especially after it became clear that the crisis would not result in government collapse, and that Erdogan was taking drastic action to address the strikes at state institutions.

Where to for Turkey?

The relationship between the AKP and the Gulen group, since the AKP’s success in the 2002 elections and the formation of its first government, has been the subject of much debate. Although Erdogan saw the relationship as a natural reflection of the policy of mobilising all conservative forces behind his party, other party leaders have felt that a clash between the two would be inevitable. Even though the Gulen group rhetorically distances itself from politics, its leaders do not hide their intention to play a political role, nor have they hesitated in their quest to be represented within the state apparatuses. Their influence was useful to Erdogan, particularly during his campaign against Kemalists within the administration and the army, but with the demise of this common threat, differences have emerged between the former allies on the administration of the state’s affairs.

It seems clear, three weeks after the beginning of the crisis, that the anticipated collapse of the AKP was largely overstated. There is probably good basis for the corruption case, and the court must be allowed to issue its ruling. While there is no doubt about the Gulen group’s intention to undermine Erdogan’s leadership ambitions, it is clear the movement has overestimated its power, and did not anticipate Erdogan’s ability to fight back.

It is clear that Erdogan is determined to dismantle the secret power of the group within the police and public prosecution circles, despite reconciliation letters Fethullah Gulen sent to the premier recently. Despite support for Erdogan within the AKP, and in various other constituencies, it is premature to predict the true impact of the corruption scandal on the elections. It is likely the AKP will win in the local elections, with a similar margin to the party’s win four years ago. But the continuing crisis atmosphere will force the party and its leader to question whether it is better for Erdogan to leave the party’s bylaws intact, and relinquish his post and run for president, or to work on amending the bylaws, which do not allow a parliamentary candidate to run for more than three consecutive terms, and call for an early election.

* This article was translated from the original Arabic by the Afro-Middle East Centre

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:35

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