The Diminishing Erdogan

A downward spiral.

erdoganRecep Tayyip Erdogan is in trouble, and on a downward spiral. The graft scandal that gripped Turkey recently, which involved his government ministers, will have a significant impact on his continued leadership as the head of the AK Party, and his presidential aspirations. Erdogan’s Islamist coalition with the influential Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and his large movement has fallen apart. Al-Jazeera called it, “the AKP-Gulen power struggle.”

According to Al-Jazeera (December 24, 2013):

“There is a consensus in Turkey that the graft crackdown is linked to the recent tensions between the United States based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen’s movement and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), that many analysts say, used to be allies in the past in their struggle against Turkey’s politically dominant military.”

On December 18, 2013, Turkish police announced that it had found $4.5 million in shoe boxes in the home of detained state-owned Halkbank general manager, Suleyman Aslan.

The sons of three ministers were arrested, and eight days later their fathers resigned from their government posts. Among them was a close friend and ally of PM Erdogan, the Minister of Urban Planning, Erdogan Bayraktar. The latter posited in an interview with a private news channel that PM Erdogan should step down as well. He revealed that the majority of construction plans, at issue in this corruption probe, were approved on PM Erdogan’s orders.

PM Erdogan, being on the defensive, reacted to the probe with vehemence, and called it a “dirty operation” aimed at smearing his administration. He was quick to blame the Gulenists in veiled references such as “those behind the investigations were trying to form a state within a state.” Apparently, the Gulen movement has many supporters among leading members of the judiciary and police. Like many dictatorial figures, Erdogan also blamed what he called “foreign backed elements” for the “dirty plot against Turkey.” He charged that “circles uncomfortable with Turkey’s successes, its growing economy, its active foreign policy and its global-scale projects, implemented a new trap set against Turkey.”

The Gulenists, on their part, have been uncomfortable with Erdogan’s authoritarianism.  They are also not in accord with his policies. Gulenists are unhappy with Erdogan’s deliberate upping of tensions with Israel and his unmitigated support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Many in the Gulen movement believe that Erdogan’s problematic foreign policies led Turkey to become internationally isolated, and damaged the Turkish economy. Domestically, they have criticized Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi Park affair.

Erdogan is used to having his way in Turkey as a result of winning three consecutive national elections, and in the process he has undermined the Kemalist legacy of secularism. Together with the Gulen movement, he has managed to eviscerate the leading military brass, which has been the preserver of Turkey’s secularism, established by the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. Erdogan, likewise, transformed the secularist judiciary.

Although Erdogan’s early political career was not entirely smooth, he managed to survive a ban from office while he completed his term as Mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998). He was arrested and sentenced to 10 months in prison in 1998, but served only four. He was accused of incitement, of reciting an Islamist poem during a public address in 1997. The poem declared: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” And, because of his criminal record, he was barred from standing in elections or holding political office (parliament has subsequently changed the law, which enabled Erdogan to run and be elected in 2002).

Erdogan’s Islamist sentiments found expression in the Necmettin Erbakan’s Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP). In 1976, Erdogan headed the local youth branch of the party. When Erbakan later founded the Saadet (Felicity) Party, Erdogan was there.  Following the 1980 coup, Erbakan regrouped to form the Islamist Welfare Party (RP), and Erdogan became one of its stars. He won a seat in Parliament from the RP, but the election board cancelled his election on a technicality.

Becoming Prime Minister (PM) in 2003, Erdogan has gradually implemented Islamic laws, he has placed restrictions on the sale of alcohol, promoted Islamic religious schools, established Muslim-oriented institutions of learning, and has placed Islamists in key positions in the public sector.

Last June, when widespread anti-government demonstrations against plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park took place in central Istanbul, Erdogan called it a conspiracy. He blamed (not for the first time) the Jews. In veiled reference to Jews, he called the demonstrators “interest-rate lobby dual loyalists, and rootless cosmopolitans,” a euphemism for Jews. His deputy, Besir Atalay, was more direct. He blamed the protests on “the Jewish Diaspora.” Erdogan has also accused “the Jews” of the overthrow of Mohammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood President, removed by the Egyptian military.

For President Obama, anchoring US policy in the region on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been at best, a bad gamble. There is little to show for the US investment. Erdogan’s Turkey is clearly not a model of an Islamic democracy, as it is being unraveled politically and economically. Erdogan demonstrated that Islamists are not democrats, and that Turkey is not a rising economic power.

Turkey’s alleged “economic miracle” was a hoax built upon vast credit expansion. It left Turkey with a current account deficit of 7% of its GDP, and an overblown pile of short-term foreign debt. The Gulf States, it appears, financed Erdogan’s import bill in the hope that Sunni-Muslim Turkey will serve as a counterweight to Shiite-Muslim Iran. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have grown disillusioned with Erdogan’s double-dealing with Iran. Internally, the Kurds and Alawis in Turkey will amount to more than half of the population, and although conservative in outlook, these minorities will not necessarily tie their future with Erdogan or his AK party.

UniCredit reported in December, 2013 that “Turkey’s economic activity is slowing, as captured by credit growth and import volumes. Fiscal policy may not be able to support activity as it has in the past, though the busy election period ahead poses risk to fiscal performance.” UniCredit forecasted Turkey’s GDP growth of 2.1% for the year 2014, which is considerably below the government’s projection.

Erdogan’s AK Party stands in the local parlance for “pure, clean, and unblemished.” The graft scandal has shown it to be not so pious, certainly not so pure, and with many blemishes. Erdogan’s leadership is now in question as never before, and the AK future is on the line, depending on the outcome of the current political crisis. Municipal elections are scheduled for March, 2014, and later in June, Presidential elections will be held. The results are likely to foster change in Turkey. What is most unsettling for Erdogan, but good for the West, is an alliance between conservative secular elements and the Gulenists. This combination, after more than 10-years in power, might be able to oust the evermore diminishing, and arrogant Erdogan.

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