Turkey simmers

Twice during the course of the year, violence directed largely against Erdogan and the party he leads, the AKP, has broken out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities.

Anti-Erdogan protesters in Turkey (photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
Anti-Erdogan protesters in Turkey
(photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
To say that 2013 has not been a good year for Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would be an understatement.  In fact, in the telling phrase used by the UK’s Queen Elizabeth in describing 1992, it has been an “annus horribilis” for him.
Twice during the course of the year, violence directed largely against Erdogan and the party he leads, the AKP, has broken out on the streets of Turkey’s major cities. “The illusion of invincibility that once surrounded Erdogan is crumbling,” asserts former Pentagon official Michael Rubin. The incidents precipitating the protests may have been different, but the underlying cause has been essentially the same – a widespread perception that Erdogan has become too dictatorial, too involved in the Islamist politics of the Arab Spring, and too arrogant in attempting to end Turkey’s role as a model of secularism in the Muslim world.
Back in May, popular fury was triggered by a terse government announcement that a shopping mall was to be built on Gezi Park, one of the last green public spaces in the center of Istanbul. With no public consultation on the proposal, the announcement fell like a spark on tinder-dry brushwood.  A small organization calling itself the Taksim Platform launched a demonstration, people gathered, the unrest spread, and it quickly developed into a nationwide protest. It soon became clear that, in addition to the Gezi Park development itself, a whole raft of grievances underlay the dissent – so-called “urbanization”, recent alcohol restrictions, government policy on Syria, the Uludere massacre of 34 Kurdish villagers, energy efficiency projects, nuclear plants and disregard for human rights including the arbitrary arrests of journalists, intellectuals and activists.
As summer turned into fall, the protests appeared to die down, but beneath the surface a more powerful and dangerous opposition was building up within Erdogan’s own party, the AKP. This centered around followers of Fethullah Gulen, an influential Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Gulen was once one of the AKP's main spiritual leaders, preaching a blend of moderate, business-friendly Islam that helped the party rise to power. His dispute with Erdogan and the AKP leadership arose over a government decision to shut down the large network of private schools that the Fethullah Gulen community, or Hizmet Movement, operates – a matter of life or death for Hizmet. 
Gulen and his Movement has followers at high levels in the Turkish establishment, including the judiciary, the secret service and the police force.  Early in December Erdogan was furious to discover that, for more than a year and unknown to him, the police had been engaged in an undercover inquiry into corruption within the government and the upper echelons of the AKP – specifically a multimillion dollar graft and corruption operation implicating a number of cabinet ministers and involving, inter alia, bribery around construction projects and illicit money transfers to Iran in sanction-busting deals.
The first result of the police investigation was the arrest of 24 high-profile names, including the sons of cabinet ministers, and the head of the state-owned Halkbank.  Erdogan’s immediate, and perhaps typical, reaction was to arrest some 70 police officers, including Istanbul’s powerful police chief Huseyin Capkin, and to order others to brief government officials on the progress of the corruption probe. This, critics say, will allow suspects to be tipped off in advance.
Erdogan’s intemperate reaction to what many see as a legitimate police inquiry antagonized many Turks, led to Turkey's secular opposition claiming it as proof that Erdogan represented a dictator-in-waiting, and triggered a resumption of the anti-government rallies that took place in the summer.
Thousands of anti-government demonstrators attended a protest in Istanbul on December 22, which police dispersed with tear gas and water cannons. One protestor is reported as saying: "Erdogan has gone crazy with power. He is already white-washing the investigation.”  Another said: “The AKP are hypocrites. They say they are fighting corruption, but when it comes to their own corruption, they try to silence the press and the people.”
On Monday, December 23, the European Union warned Erdogan that he was in direct breach of EU rules safeguarding the independence of the judiciary, which is a key condition for Turkey's EU membership bid.
"The latest developments," said a spokesman for Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement, “including the sacking of police chiefs and the instructions to police to inform authorities on investigations, raise serious concerns as regards the independence, efficiency and impartiality of the investigations and the separation of powers.”
The fallout of the corruption inquiry has so far been the resignation of three cabinet ministers whose sons have been arrested. One, Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, urged Erdogan to step down as well, insisting that "a great proportion" of corrupt construction projects that were under investigation were approved by the prime minister himself.
The call fell on deaf ears, even though by December 27 Erdogan’s own son had become the latest high-profile figure to be named in the widening corruption investigation. Following the ministerial resignations, Erdogan undertook a major cabinet reshuffle, and appointed ten new ministers.  In a series of somewhat paranoid statements he has described the police investigation as a "dirty game", accused unnamed foreign ambassadors of conspiring in a "dark alliance" against him and hinted that he might expel them from the country, and claimed the whole conspiracy investigation was a plot by foreign and Turkish forces to discredit his government ahead of local elections in March 2014.
Those coming March elections hold the key to Erdogan’s aim of holding on to supreme power in Turkey, one way or another.  If the AKP party manages to ride the tiger of popular discontent and retain its political lead, Erdogan will be able to achieve his scarcely-concealed ambition to change the constitution, allowing him to remain as Turkey’s prime minister beyond his statutory three terms, which end in 2015. 
Alternatively, if he fails in that aim, AKP victory would allow him to imbue the office of the presidency – currently largely a ceremonial role – with greatly increased powers, and to stand as president in 2014, when President Abdullah Gul’s term of office expires.   
As 2013 ends, Erdogan’s ambitions, and to a certain extent Turkey’s future, turns on how far-reaching the corruption scandal proves to be. Turkey cannot be said to be on the boil, but it is certainly simmering. 
The writer is the author of One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com)