A new power struggle emerging in Turkey
Contributed by Guest Columnist
After its election victory in 2002 the Islamist Justice- and Development Party (AKP) of PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan entered a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. based religious leader Fethullah Gülen. This alliance confronted the secular Kemalist establishment, which had been the leading power within the Turkish state for many decades and was enforced as such by the armed forces. Over the last few years this power struggle has reached its conclusion, with the power of the Kemalists greatly diminished, the AKP government mainly in charge of the military, and followers of Fethullah Gülen in control of the police, judiciary and other crucial segments of the state. This situation opened the way for a new power struggle in Turkey, putting the once solid alliance of the AKP and the Gülen movement under major pressure.
In Turkey sensational scandals follow each other in a rapid succession. The main actor in the latest one is the national intelligence service MIT. On the 7th of February it appeared that special prosecutor Sadrettin Sarikaya had ordered the detainment of MIT Undersecretary (the highest position) Hakan Fidan, his predecessor Emre Taner and two other (former) associates of MIT. This development followed from Sarikaya’s investigation into the KCK, the alleged urban branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). During this probe information came forward about secret contacts between MIT and the PKK, which were assumed to be unlawful (1). Although Sarikaya claimed strong evidence, the detainment of the MIT Undersecretary was highly controversial, not in the last place because it suggested political motives.
In itself it is not a bad idea for the Turkish government to accept the PKK as a conversation partner, for it could be an important step towards a solution of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish people, as well as an end to the violence in this respect. The fact that not everyone agrees on that became evident when Sarikaya summoned Fidan and the others to learn about what had taken place between MIT and the PKK. When they did not appear, he had them detained, a development that hit Ankara like a bomb. The AKP took Sarikaya’s maneuver as a direct assault on PM Erdogan, since it follows from his position that he carries knowledge about the ins and outs of MIT operations. This was especially so in this particular case, since Hakan Fidan is known to be a close confidant of Erdogan. To put it shortly, the AKP surmised that Sarikaya was on a collision course with Erdogan. Therefore, something had to be done to stop the threat.
Within days the AKP launched a new law, making it impossible for the Justice Department to prosecute employees of MIT without the consent of the PM (2). In response, the opposition was incensed, since Erdogan obtained a powerful weapon this way, which did not make Turkey more democratic in their opinion. Moreover, with the new law the government appears to follow double standards. For while the government has maintained that there should be an independent justice department in other cases, this principle was abandoned as soon as Erdogan became the direct object of an investigation himself.
Last year an audio recording of the secret meeting of MIT with the PKK in Oslo appeared on the Internet. Many wondered who caused the leak. It was more or less predictable that the Gülen movement eventually had to be mentioned in this respect. This was not only because of the many indications pointing to a triangle between the police, Justice Department and judges under the supervision of the Gülen movement, but also since media reports suggested a growing conflict between Gülen and the AKP. A few years ago this would have been hardly imaginable, but with the power of the Kemalists in retreat much has changed in Turkey.
Fethullah Gülen says he does not want to be involved in politics, but contradicted himself when he spoke out in favor of the AKP. This alliance didn’t come unexpectedly, since Gülen and the AKP have shared goals, such as greater religious influence on society and the end of the Kemalist hegemony. Moreover, both the AKP and Gülen stand for the expansion of Turkish influence abroad, a policy often summarized under the term Neo-Ottomanism.
The Gülen movement had much to offer to the AKP, not only an intellectual cadre and a social base within Turkish society, but also the support of the media belonging to the Gülen movement. In return the AKP became the political tool of the Gülen movement and a way towards domination of the state. Still, the AKP and the Gülen movement are not identical. A number of AKP MP’s may be followers of Gülen, but Erdogan is not. On certain essential points he even disagrees with this imam, who has resided on a farm in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania since 1998. For instance, Erdogan has been campaigning against the state of Israel over the last few years, while Gülen is on good terms with representatives of this country. This explains why Gülen criticized the Turkish activists who wanted in 2010 to bring humanitarian aid to the Gaza strip, beleaguered by Israel (3). Erdogan, who praised the activists generously, was hit by Gülen simultaneously this way. It was not going to be the last collision, for annoyances accumulated, such as the phenomenon that the loyalty of Gülen’s followers is shifting towards Erdogan as soon they are in his environment. MIT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan is a good example in this respect. Initially he belonged to the Gülen movement, but later he became closer to Erdogan. This is a major nuisance for Gülen.
The next stage in the growing power struggle between Gülen and Erdogan turned out to be the match-fixing scandal in football matches last year. The Gülen movement had no objections to a life sentence for Aziz Yildirim, the president of the Fehnerbahce sport club. This followed from considerations that went beyond football. For Yildirim is also an important contractor who does major construction projects, such as for NATO. With him in prison such lucrative jobs could go to Gülen’s number one entrepreneur Ahmet Calik. But the importance of football cannot be underestimated in Turkey, making the AKP hesitant to go along with Gülen’s scheme. The AKP feared a massive loss of votes if immensely popular football players were to end up in prison for many years. This is why Erdogan’s party proposed to limit the maximum penalty. Subsequently this proposal was torpedoed by the veto of President Abdullah Gül, with whom the Gülen movement has better relations than with Erdogan. After Gül had send the proposed law back to parliament, it was accepted there once again. So, Erdogan’s faction in the AKP got what it wanted, but as a consequence the crack in its understanding with Gülen became more visible than ever before. The strong critique directed towards the AKP supporters of the proposed law by columnists in Gülen’s daily Todays Zaman left no doubt about that (4).
The next discord appeared after the arrest of former Commander-in-Chief Ilker Basbug, on the suspicion of involvement with Ergenekon, the alleged ultra-secular conspiracy against the AKP and the Gülen movement which has kept Turkish newspaper readers occupied over the last few years. As far as Erdogan was concerned, Başbuğ could have been released pending trial, but Gülen’s followers in the Justice Department wanted to see the general behind bars immediately (5). At the time Erdogan saw no reason to interfere, but after the detainment of Hakan Fidan in early February he put on the emergency brake. This is entirely logical, because Erdogan understands very well that MIT is one of the state institutions that is not under full control of the Gülen movement. The Kurdish politician Zübeynir Aydar, a member of the PKK-team that negotiated with MIT, understood what happened very well. According to Aydar the government attempted to purge the police from Gülen’s influence. Subsequently the Gülen followers in the police hit back by leaking MIT documents to the Justice Department (6). Sarikaya’s probe was the result. The fact that shortly after the detainment of Hakan Fidan two police chiefs who investigated the contacts between MIT and PKK were removed from duty illustrates Aydars statement (7).
It was no coincidence that the contacts between MIT and PKK caused all of this. For while Erdogan came to see negotiations as a way to end violence, Gülen prefered mass arrests of Kurdish politicians and activists who allegedly had contacts with the PKK. Gülen is very much willing to give the Kurds certain privileges, such as their own schools and the use of their own language. But with those who continue to resist Turkish domination he shows no mercy. He made that quite clear during a speech which appeared on his website herkul.org in which he even called for the murder of 50,000 Kurds to silence their resistance!
On the outside nothing seems wrong between Erdogan and Gülen. This is explained by the fact that neither of them has anything to gain from a power struggle occurring in the arena of the media. While the Gülen movement keeps silent, the AKP government adopts a denial strategy. For example, Erdogan himself said: “The institutions of this country have been fulfilling their duties in a state of unprecedented harmony and motivation. There is no animosity, either among state institutions or between sons of this country.” (8) As if the AKP didn’t recently launch a law which radiates, above all else, mistrust towards the Gülen-dominated police and the judiciary …
According to AKP member of parliament (and former Erdogan advisor) Yalcin Akdogan the impression of a conflict with the Gülen movement has been intentionally created by opponents: “Those who sow the seeds of evil do not only want to drag the AK Party and the movement into a lose-lose downward spiral, they also want to separate Turkey from its current goal of democratization.” (9) Akdogan may partially have a point, in that opponents of both Erdogan and Gülen will surely appreciate discord between the two of them. However, this does not prove that any of these opponents arranged the situation. It also remains vague who “those who sow the seeds of evil” are. It cannot be the secular nationalists, for their power over the state belongs to the past by now. Moreover, in those circumstances prosecutor Sarikaya would probably be standing in the Ergenekon corner by now. Instead his name hardly came forward recently. This may seem strange, but it is not unexplainable. For if further investigation had uncovered his ties with the Gülen movement, no one would have doubted the reality of the conflict any longer.
As long as some doubts remained, the state of Israel could also be mentioned as a possible perpetrator. This is not so implausible, since the Jewish state was far from pleased when Hakan Fidan became appointed as MIT-chief. But if Israel wants to do him harm, it would seem easier to point at his good relationship with Iran. Besides, a role of Israel in the MIT scandal would lead towards contradictory (but nevertheless interesting) aspects, such as the indications of a cooperation between the Jewish state and the PKK over the last few years, and of course on the other side, the good relations between Israel and the PKK-hating Gülen movement.
Did the government realize that its arguments were not particularly strong? Maybe that is why Yalcin Akdogan added the statement that Gülen sent a get-well-soon message to Erdogan, after the PM underwent surgery on his troubled intestines for the second time early February. Very kind of course, but what does it say about the quality of the relationship? For opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who often responds furiously about Erdogan’s tricks, sends such messages to Erdogan as well. That is why it is more interesting to speculate why Gülen did not send a get-well-soon message to Erdogan in November, after Erdogan received his first surgery.
Apart from all the denials stands the fact that both the AKP and the Gülen movement are hungry for power and influence in Turkey. The AKP through the government, the Gülen movement through the state, which seems to make conflicts inevitable. Few observers still have doubts that there is a power struggle. Not only does a secular columnist such as Rusen Cakir take it as a fact (10), but so does the conservative Ali Bayramoğlu in the religious and pro-government daily Yeni Safak (11). That the conflict has been slumbering so long is caused by the fact that the AKP and the Gülen movement were on the same side in the confrontation with the Kemalist establishment. However, after the ideological opponents had disappeared in prison, or were kept silent out of fear for arrest, the common-enemy element diminished, opening the way to an entirely new power struggle in Turkey. The recent controversy over MIT is not its first manifestation, but has lead to the most implications so far. Columnist Rusen Cakir foresees what may happen next: “At this point, I think there is a higher probability that the Gülen movement will take a step back. However, it is also not realistic to expect them to abandon the positions they have achieved after years of hard labor without gaining anything.”