Political Crisis in Turkey Threatens Erdogan’s Government
One political maxim that remains as true today as when it was coined over 100 years ago is that, “Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And, it doesn’t just occur in Third World one man rule like North Korea. Democracies also are easy prey to corruption, especially when one political party stays in power too long. America, Nixon, and Watergate is a prime example, but they are also found in Britain, France and Germany. Even “progressive” nations like Sweden have their share of corruption, where the party is power abuses its power.
Therefore, it can’t be considered surprising that Erdogan and his administration in Turkey are finding themselves in trouble after 11 years in power and a growing centralization of power around Erdogan. He has won three national elections – the first in 2002 because voters were tired of the corruption of the previous government, which was tied to the policies of Kemal Ataturk. He replaced the overall direction with his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has pushed for a stronger Islamic bend to Turkish society and politics. This has included putting restrictions on the sale of alcohol, enhancing the status of religious schools, encouraging the establishment of Muslim-oriented institutions of learning, and nominating more radical Islamists to powerful positions in the public sector.
However, with that came a corruption of his administration and a growing disrespect for Turkish institutions. The Turkish media is subject to intimidation and journalists are sent to jail under a variety of charges. The business community is pressured to conform to Muslim mores instead or remaining secular. This, in turn has alarmed more modern factions of the AKP, which are allied with American based Fethullah Gulen.
The first cracks appeared in the public support last summer with riots around Taksim Square over the development plan for a mall. However, the development was only the spark that allowed public unrest with Erdogan over many issues like restrictions on alcohol sales to be exposed. Riot police stopped the protests and the proposed development plans were shelved.
The current crisis is more serious in that it is a corruption scandal that strikes close to Erdogan himself. There is rioting in the streets, but it is also pitting his political allies with those who back Gulen and is threatening a split in the AKP that threatens Erdogan’s political majority.
The crisis began in mid December when police raided several places as a part of a corruption investigation. The raid netted the sons of Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler, and Environment and Urban planning minister Erdogan Bayraktar. The raids had been kept secret from the government lest the Erdogan regime warn the ministers.
Investigations have also been launched into Prime Minister Erdogan’s sons Bilal and Bürak along with the newly appointed Istanbul police chief. The state run Halkbank’s CEO Süleyman Aslan has been charged with taking bribes to circumvent the economic sanctions against Iran. The police reportedly found $4.5 million in cash stored in shoe boxes in his home. Police say gold was smuggled into Iran to buy Iranian oil and gas
Erdogan reacted quickly. He ordered that future police investigations be reported to their superiors. That order was blocked by a court. He also, like many other political leaders in trouble, accused foreign countries like the US of fostering the trouble.
Erdogan then struck against the police who are generally more supportive of Gulen, than Erdogan. He fired over 500 police officers and officials involved in the investigation and replaced with police loyal to himself. He has also struck against the judiciary system by ordering the police not to obey judicial decrees.
These moves may hamper the police investigation, but they do nothing to stop the political hemorrhaging, help him win the local elections being held in a couple of months, or hold his political alliance together. He forced three cabinet ministers to resign and has reshuffled the cabinet. This may have stopped slowed the crisis a bit, but at the cost of political support within his own party.
The eroding support for Erdogan showed when Environment and Urbanisation Minister Erdogan Bayraktar was forced out as a result of his son being caught in the investigation and arrested in mid December. Bayraktar, previously a close ally of Erdogan, urged the prime minister to follow suit and accused the PM of corrupt real estate dealings. “For the sake of the wellbeing of this nation and country, I believe the prime minister should resign.” Bayraktar made his comments during a live interview on NTV, which tried to cut him off and then later edited the interview clip on its website and during subsequent airings on television so that Bayraktar’s comments about Erdogan were missing.
Bayraktar probably voiced what many in the AKP believe is necessary in order to survive politically, but are afraid to vocalize. However, despite the silence by many party members, the damage has rocked the AKP. For instance, the previous interior minister, Idris Şahin, resigned from the party over the police purge and after accusing Erdogan of allowing a small oligarchy to run the party.
Three MPs also resigned from the party. One of the MPs, Ertuğrul Günay, left with a stinging attack on Erdogan and the party’s leadership. “While the party was facing serious accusations, they tolerated the people responsible and ordered disciplinary action against those who were trying to get them to reason,” Mr Günay, himself a former cabinet minister, said in a parting statement. “They have made my decision easier. The party has evolved into two different wings: the wide base of people who have been oppressed and an overbearing mentality on the top. This mentality has no chance now.
“At this point, those people who have this mentality are sailing to somewhere else, guided by their arrogance. We have come to the point of a parting of the ways.” Another of the MPs, Erdal Kalkan, warned that more trouble was to come. “This will not end here,” he said. “Our honorable people see everything.”
The reaction of a national leader to a crisis and mass resignations is instructive. Some try to regain the initiative by bringing in new opinions and voices to broaden the political base. Others try to stop the problem by bringing in loyalists who will not ask questions, but follow orders. Erdogan is one to do the latter.
An example is the new Interior Minister Efkan Ala, who is not a member of parliament but is rather one of Erdogan’s political aides, who reportedly urged Erdogan to crack down harder on the protestors this summer and the Istanbul chief of police to cajole him to use greater force.
Although these new appointments will help Erdogan temporarily stop the problem, he is now relying on politically inexperienced subordinates who do not have the skills or savvy to regain power within the AKP or neutralize public unrest. That bodes ill for Erdogan’s long term prospects.
Another problem for Erdogan is the growing lack of confidence in the Turkish economy during the continued unrest. Turkey’s stock market has slumped and the Turkish Lira dropped about 5% in December despite substantial Turkish central bank intervention – only trouble plagued Argentina’s peso did worse.
Turkey heavily relies on foreign investment – which is scared off by political unrest and a government that is accused of corruption. Interest rates on Turkish bonds are going up, which will economic growth in future quarters.
Inevitably elections revolve around economic issues and Erdogan has stayed in power by keeping the Turkish economy upright and encouraging foreign investment. The current unrest promises to make the local elections in March a test for Erdogan and the AKP. However, that is only the beginning as national elections are coming in 2015 and few think the Turkish economy will be helping the AKP.
The AKP is also losing the support of its strong grassroots supporters who back Gulen and his movement. The Alliance for Shared Values, an organization allied with the Gulen movement released a statement that was critical of the Turkish PM. It said, “Rather than doing what any democratic government ought to, the present government has attributed these investigations to foreign powers or certain groups. These efforts are perceived by the collective conscience of the Turkish society as an attempt to detract attention from the essence of this case…These are anti-democratic actions by the political leadership that deserve condemnation.”
Erdogan is facing the test common to all long serving politicians – corruption. For many politicians, the answer is to claim all corruption charges are politically motivated and try to hamstring the investigation. In democratic societies, this is a short term fix that inevitably leads to political defeat. This is the course that Erdogan is currently taking. And, given his penchant to blame other countries for the unrest, it’s probable that Erdogan will try to refocus on international events during this crisis.
This poses problems for US/Turkish relations since Erdogan has implied that the US is behind this political turmoil. But, it helps him solidify support amongst voters in Turkey who are more suspicious of the US.
There are also two other courses for Erdogan. One is to be more open to the investigation, take the short term political fallout, but place oneself in a position to win future elections, His arrogance so far makes this option unlikely course. The second is to subvert the democratic process to ensure future political victories despite any corruption.
In the end, this is about more than corruption and gold smuggling. It is about the amount of power Erdogan has and how much Turkey’s voters will allow him to have.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s winter offensive
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