Ten years ago, Turkey underwent a rapid and dramatic change; Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power and in a short time pushed Turkey’s military out of politics and out of power. Erdogan’s electoral success was a combination of support from pro-Islamic voters and organizations as well as from the liberals.
Unfortunately, the alliance of Erdogan with the critically important Islamic movement of Fethullah Gulen has untraveled. Gulen, a Muslim cleric who now leads his congregation from self-imposed exile in Philadelphia, has become a fierce critic of Erdogan and uses his pulpit to denigrate the Turkish Prime Minister.
Relations between the two men began to break down in 2011, when Erdogan, out of fear or paranoia, decided to purge most Gulen supporters from the AKP party lists in anticipation of the upcoming general election in June. It can be argued that Erdogan is losing grip with Turkey’s political reality; has power and success have gone to his head or he has given up on the notion of a liberal and democratic Turkey? He, perhaps, sees himself in the style of another Ataturk.
As a result, the Turkish leader is not interested in sharing power with anyone else. He has expunged most liberals and supporters of the moderate President Abdullah Gul, removed most Gulenists from key positions in the civil service, and anyone else who does not subscribe to his authoritarian concept of leadership.
Last summer, the schism between the followers of Gulen and Erdogan increased as protesters occupied Gezi Park. Gulen-affiliated media castigated Erdogan, even going so far as to compare him to a “pharaoh.” In response, the Erdogan regime announced in late 2013 that it would shut down Gulen-operated schools, depriving the movement of its main source of revenue and recruits.
The Gulen movement retaliated by supporting a corruption probe, led by the prosecutor Celal Kara, against relatives of several cabinet ministers and businessmen with close ties to Erdogan. The Turkish leader escalated by launching a full-scale purge of any Gulen sympathizers from sensitive positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary, and police.
Erdogan is now accusing his former allies of having established a parallel state that is challenging the authority of the elected government, of plotting his overthrow, and that of the government.
Last month Erdogan attempted to enact legislation to subordinate the judiciary to the executive, thus disabling his enemies from launching further probes against the prime minister’s family and friends.
For example, a prosecutor tried to detain Erdogan’s son at the end of last year. The police, instructed by the government, refused to carry out the order, and the prosecutor was reassigned. In retaliation to the real and perceived actions of Gulen’s followers, over 2,000 police officers and nearly 100 prosecutors have been reassigned since last December.
Erdogan, after losing a significant part of his Islamic base, is looking to forge an alliance with the military – his old adversary. Toward this end, Erdogan has instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare for the retrial of imprisoned military officers that will undoubtedly lead to the acquittal of generals.
An alliance between Erdogan and the military represents new risks for Turkey’s democracy, and ultimately for Greece. The military, however, has transformed from the staunch Kemalist officers that previously dominated the Turkish state. The election of the AKA has ended annual purges of suspected Islamists from the armed forces.
There is a strong probability that since 2008, the younger members of Turkish officer corps have abandoned the secular Kemalist principles and support an Islamic Turkey. There are now many within the military that sympathize with Gulen’s philosophy that combines Islam and Turkish patriotism.
Furthermore, the mass imprisonments of senior commanders have depleted the military’s upper echelons, making it possible for younger officers to rise to important commands within the armed forces. Erdogan may believe that by reinstating the imprisoned generals they would be able to check the power and influence of the lower ranking Gulenists.
That is assuming that the younger pro-Gulenists would be amiable to follow the generals in an alliance with Erdogan. Either way, the military will once again intervene in Turkey’s politics.
One scenario is that the Gulenists, with the support of the younger generation of the military, will overthrow Erdogan and establish a conservative Islamic regime. Another consideration is that Erdogan will make his pact with the army devil and impose an authoritarian system backed by the old generals – who will have to keep looking over their shoulder for the Gulenists in the armed forces poised to push them out.
For Greece, and for NATO, a destabilizing Turkey is a serious concern. It has been the hope of American policy-makers that Turkey would be a steadying Islamic element in what is otherwise a very dangerous and unpredictable neighborhood.
How often have White House politicians and analysts lauded the fact that Turkey is a model of a democratic state that is also Islamic. This is no longer the case – now only Greece, despite its economic woes, and Israel are the only bulwarks of stability and democracy.
(Andre Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver)