Following clashes around Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in summer of 2013, Turkey entered a period of protracted political crisis. Actually, it started even earlier when Prime Minister Erdogan began purging and prosecuting senior military officers on charges of plotting a coup. Over 100 people were arrested in the case of a secret organization by the name of Ergenekon then. The case’s end result for Erdogan was significantly weakened influence of army top brass on Turkey’s political life.
Creeping Islamization, even a soft one, aroused strong dissatisfaction not only among political opposition, but also from large parts of the urban population, accustomed to a certain degree of freedom. Interestingly, Turkish economy has significantly improved on Erdogan’s watch. The nation’s GDP has grown, it has managed to do away with the relatively high inflation and enjoys reduced unemployment. We have a seemingly paradoxical situation here, where the economy is improving, but dissatisfaction is growing.
As it turned out, with economic success came growing corruption. Late in 2013, Turkey was rocked by numerous arrests. Law-enforcement authorities conducted the Large Bribe operation. Persons under investigation include a few ministers, the head of the state Halkbank Suleyman Aslan, and construction magnate Ali Agaoglu. The former economy minister Zafer Caglayan turned to be the most corrupt of all, having received bribes to the tune of 52 million dollars, while 10 million dollars more went to the former interior minister Muammer Guler, and the former minister for relations with the EU Egemen Bagis got 1.5 million dollars. The suspects include children of the prime minister as well, with one of them, Bilal Erdogan, put under investigation.
It all has created a terrific scandal. However, Erdogan’s first reaction to information about the Large Bribe operation was very emotional. He described it as “a dirty operation” and “a political conspiracy” and promised to break hands of his opponents whom he called “dark forces.” Of course, he referenced once again the dark forces controlled from abroad. However, the prime minister could not deny that corruption and bribery had, in fact, taken place.
Still, the prime minister tried almost immediately to take control of a situation which threatened serious consequences for him and his party. His first objective was purging the police and prosecution service. He first dismissed several dozen high-ranking police officers in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa, who were engaged in anti-corruption investigations. Then, the same fate befell 350 mid-level police in Ankara, and later 15 regional police chiefs. Chief prosecutor and five of his deputies were dismissed, too. According to the Turkish press, about 1,700 police officers have lost their jobs since the corruption scandal began, and the government’s trusted people have been appointed in their place.
When speaking about foreign links of anti-corruption investigations, Erdogan makes transparent allusions to his former ally, writer and theologian Fethullah Gulen. The latter has been living in voluntary exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, USA since 1999.
Gulen’s supporters are united in the informal organization Hizmet (Service), which operates in more than 100 countries. Some quite rich and wealthy people are among them. The main activity is education and financing of various educational institutions. In his sermons, Gulen has repeatedly stated that study of physics, mathematics, chemistry is a form of the worship of God. In Turkey, so-called Gulen schools are among the best. They have expensive modern equipment, treat both sexes equally, and provide English lessons from the first grade.
The Turkish state apparatus is full of Gulen’s supporters, called Nursists. Erdogan believes with good reason that these people in the police, prosecution service and courts were the ones to start the anti-corruption investigations. Timing of the Large Bribe operation looks just too perfect to be random. Turkey is headed for local elections to be held in March 2014, and presidential election in May 2014. The current prime minister has made ??no secret of his desire to run for the post and radically change the constitution in order to implement the provisions of Islam in it.
To strengthen his position, Erdogan seeks to take control of the media and the courts.
According to the British Financial Times, the legislative proposal launched by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may give the minister of transport and communications the authority to block websites suspected of violating privacy and force ISPs to store information about their clients’ online activity.
According to a professor of law at Istanbul’s Bilgi University Yaman Akdeniz, new measures are politically motivated and aimed at stopping the free flow of information. In particular, the law may prevent revelations of corrupt acts by senior government officials and businesspeople from appearing online.
A bill on judicial reform presented to the Turkish parliament by the AKP has caused a mixed reaction on the part of MPs. Its opponents and supporters clashed right at a meeting of the committee responsible for its preparation. Essentially, the bill is strengthening the control of the Ministry of Justice over the appointment of judges and prosecutors. Today they are appointed by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors.
Lawyers met the prime minister’s proposal with a barrage of criticism. In their view, the document contradicts the Basic Law, which establishes the independence of the judiciary. Its previous reform was carried out by Turkish government three years ago as part of the recommendations of the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join. This was stated by the head of the Union of Judges and Prosecutors Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu. After a stormy debate, the bill was put to the vote on the committee and received the required number of votes. Later, the head of the Ministry of Justice Bekir Bozdag said that political parties had reached a consensus that the reform could be scrapped.
Erdogan disagrees. He commented on Eminagaoglu’s statement: “These are not lawyers, but legal militants.” The Turkish leader freely admits that he is purging the police and seeking to establish tighter control over the judiciary.
Looking for new allies, the prime minister turned to the convicted Kemalists. He recently said he would not mind a review of a series of cases against military officers. This is a major turning point in the political process in Turkey. If they are acquitted, the Kemalists can be considered the chief winners in the struggle between Erdogan and Gulen.
The prime minister has not protected corrupt ministers. Unlike his friend, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, he completely reshuffled his Cabinet and said he would not impede the investigation.
Confrontation between the prime minister and the judiciary is not only far from over, but intensifies. It has drawn the entire state apparatus into the fight. Turkish newspapers reported that gendarmes stopped a truck that was heading to Syria, allegedly carrying humanitarian aid to the Syrian Turkmen. In fact, the car turned out to be carrying weapons and ammunition, escorted by Turkish intelligence agents. Experts believe that the operation was carried out to discredit the Syrian policy of the Erdogan Cabinet.
Uneasy days go on for the Turkish prime minister.