Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey made the statement that there was a serious question as to just how independent his nation’s judiciary should be. This clearly rhetorical question reflects the powerful prime minister’s pique at the extent of activity by a federal prosecutor who has been heading an anti-corruption investigation. Ironically the entire episode sounded exactly the same as what Erdogan and his party used to complain about military domination of secular institutions.
Politics aside, the action that pushed Erdogan beyond his professional restraint level was a summons served on his son, Bilal. This action was merely one of many directed at political associates of the Erdogan government, including cabinet ministers’ relatives, who had become subjects of the prosecution probe. Something had to be done and Erdogan came down hard. The prosecutor involved was removed from the case, but not until he had charged that none of the follow-up arrests to his interrogations had been completed and now the suspects were all covering their financial tracks.
Ministerial accusations of police corruption quickly followed and hundreds of officers were transferred out of their normal positions. The result was a slowing of the judicial process and gave the Erdogan administration at least some temporary breathing room. The PM’s office went into high gear and the country’s top financier, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, warned that an out-of-control corruption investigation would adversely impact much needed foreign direct investment. To further muddy the waters, Simsek blamed Ankara’s inability to raise foreign short term loans on the publicity given the current “alleged scandals.” Just to spread the confusion further, the finance minister indicated to the press that the reduction in value of the Turkish lira also was affected by what he termed “the reduction of monetary stimulus in the United States.”
Erdogan added the charge of political usurpation to the government propaganda mix by suggesting that the nation’s judges sought to exercise their un-elected power through false legal attacks on his administration. This theme was added to the PM’s claims against the murky Islamist movement inspired by Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based imam, whose influence has grown increasingly in the past several years. Gulenist schools have been strategically placed throughout Turkey and around the world. Adherents are said to have growing support among the police and secret services as well as the judiciary. The movement is a definite target of the Erdogan political machine.
The ruling AKP (Justice and Development party) has replaced the establishment of the military-protected secular government of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with what the former refer to as an Islamic version of Western democracy. The reality has been a vendetta against leading Turkish generals and the scores of journalists who supported them. There appears to be little or no check on executive power and this has had an active negative impact on Turkey and even its external relations. The breakdown in Ankara’s friendly relationship with Israel over Gaza may have added to Turkey’s standing in the Islamic community, but it had an adverse effect on its earlier efforts to move westward toward EU membership.
Turkey, directed by Erdogan’s calculating hand, has succeeded in playing all sides of the Syrian civil war to the middle, as the old political expression goes. There was a time when Erdogan considered Bashar al Assad a personal friend. Suppossedly Erdogan was to be a major reform influence on the Syrian president. That did not happen, and Erdogan was said to have been severely embarrassed by his lack of influence after all the publicity to the contrary. Now Turkey plays host to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees while the squabbling Syrian opposition leadership is headquartered safely in Istanbul.
Always hanging over Erdogan’s head, and Turkey in general, is the Damascus government’s connections with the Kurdish terrorist organization, PKK (KurdistanWorkers party), which has a strong foothold along the Turkish border on Syria’s northeast. While this may be an overly emphasized fear of encouragement of dissidence among Turkey’s formidable Kurdish minority, it is nonetheless a serious consideration in the maintenance of the defense of the two nations’ shared border. And this is to say nothing of the internal voting power of the Turkish Kurds.
It all seemed so simple not too long ago when there was a strong expectation that a successful Recep Tayyip Erdogan would step down as prime minister and switch jobs with President Abdullah Gul à la Putin and Medvedev. Erdogan would retire from day-to-day politics while retaining his dominant personal status internationally and Gul could play the more diplomatic prime minister suitable to his own style. This no longer appears to be such a sure thing.
Like Putin, Erdogan only feels comfortable when he has the reins of power fully in his hands, and Erdogan doesn’t trust Gul to manipulate the system in his compatriot’s best interests. As an example of deft — and pragmatic — maneuvering, Erdogan has approved the concept of a retrial of the many imprisoned generals. This crucial action comes at a time when it was essential to move the public’s attention away from a worsening economy and considerable corruption at all levels. Turkish politics appears to be setting itself for another dramatic shift — but it must be a shift strong enough to keep the nation from boiling over. Erdogan would not feel this is a time for a major change if he did not sense his own endangerment.