The Turkish ruling Justice and development party (AKP) is arguably going through one of its most defining moments. On December 16, more than 50 people were arrested including the sons of three Turkish ministers, the director of the Turkish Halk Bank, an Iranian Turkey-based businessman as well as other high profile businessmen who were close to the government and to the Prime Minister himself. The arrests are part of an investigation into state corruption and bribery and also illegal transfers of gold and money into Iran.
The dominant opinion is that the scandal stems from a power struggle between the Gulen movement, an international community of followers of the US Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, and the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The first blow to Erdogan was to the government’s foreign policy. While in recent years the AK Party has been scrambling with poor ties with its neighbors, the bombing that took place in the Turkish-Syrian border city Reyhanli in which more than 35 people died brought that failing policy to the center of the Turkish public’s attention.
The Syrian war’s deadliest spillover into Turkey to date, the bombing made Turkish policy in Syria a headline issue and a public debate. Following the bombing, several reports emerged that the Turkish government was turning a blind eye on jihadists and radical groups operating in Syria, some reports even accused the government of providing them with financial support and weapons.
In recent months, Erdogan’s course in Syria proved faulty and irrelevant to the reality of the situation; a more reasonable Iran after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and a United States that praises the Syrian regime for cooperation in dismantling its chemical weapons stockpile.
Another blow to the government’s foreign policy was the removal of President Mohammad Morsi by the Egyptian military.
Since Morsi was elected in 2012 Erdogan formed a strong alliance with Morsi, providing him with money and logistical support. Therefore, Erdogan was one of the main critics of his removal and of the military-appointed government, leading to a diplomatic crisis that ended with Egypt deporting the Turkish ambassador in Cairo last month.
Turkey’s approval rate in the Middle East fell from 78 percent in 2011 to 59 percent this year. This sharp decrease comes as a result of a declining popularity in both Syria and Egypt. Foreign policy, once a guaranteed ticket for winning elections, is now an embarrassment for the AK Party.
The second factor weakening Erdogan was the decline of the idea that the AK Party was a “model for democracy” in the Middle East. The Gezi protests were the main force in the fragmentation of that idea.
The protests ruined the AK party’s image locally and abroad. It introduced a problematic social movement that was not affiliated with any political party, yet managed to send disapproving waves across the nation and millions of protesters to the streets.
The month-long protests were effective enough to prompt Erdogan to spend the following months denouncing the protests, lashing out on protesters and calling them terrorists that were working for foreign forces to undermine his ballot box rule. Erdogan, while succeeding in containing the crisis through strong media and public relations campaigns, failed to turn it into long-term leverage.
The Erdogan of 2002 would have taken advantage of such protests by calling them a legitimate act that is a sacred right of every citizen. That Erdogan led an inclusive policy that he saw as his only chance to be elected despite his well-known Islamist-roots.
The government’s unlawful and desperate attempt to squash the protests made it clear to reasonable minds in Turkey and abroad that today’s Erdogan was no longer interested in a liberal democracy. Leading figures and observers of Turkish politics have lost their faith in the prime minister because of the June protests. His backers turned against him, calling him illiberal and authoritarian.
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The protests also exposed a crack within the AK Party itself. A report prepared by Eurasia Global Research Center, headed by an AK Party deputy, İdris Bal, criticized the government for its heavy-handed crackdown on the Gezi protests and said that Erdogan was misinformed about the events on the ground during the demonstrations.
"Since his third term, Erdogan focused on consolidating his and only his power by polarizing the country and ignoring the real issues"
The long time ally Fethullah Gulen also criticized the government for the handling of protests, for the first time publically signaling a clear rift and disagreement with the Turkish Prime Minister.
Following the protests, the “Turkish model” lost its momentum as the events rapidly made headlines on prominent media outlets around the globe, thus further damaging Erdogan and his party’s image.
The third and the most dangerous factor in weakening Erdogan is the breaking down of the AK Party from within. The recent row between Gulen and Erdogan – where the Prime Minister proposed laws to ban the prep schools that make up the backbone of the Gulen movement – brought forward a public rift between Erdogan and his once most important allies in the country, the ones that helped him overcome a common enemy, the ultra secular generals.
This rift is causing disagreements within the party with deputies voicing opposing ideas, and some resigning, as Erdogan and the government moves against the Gulen movement.
The row with Gulen and its recent outcome, the corruption scandal, have been at the center of the public eye. This graft probe crisis hit Erdogan very close to home as four of his ministers were implicated in corruption allegations. Three ministers resigned and the forth one, the European Union Affairs Minister, was removed in a cabinet reshuffle late on December 25.
Furthermore, one of the resigned ministers called on Erdogan to resign, adding that the Turkish premier had knowledge of the construction plans under investigation. Also, a second wave of arrests, which police refused to carry out after pressure from the justice minister, was believed to include the name of Erdogan’s son.
Most observers argue that Erdogan will remain defiant and fight back this crisis just as he did in the face of Gezi. No matter how Erdogan chooses to handle this scandal, one certain outcome is that the AK party and Erdogan will be undermined because unlike past challenges the Gulen movement is a well-organized community that owns strong media outlets and includes influential figures within the Turkish society, political parties, police forces and judiciary.
The weakening of Erdogan and his party will have two positive effects. First, it will lead to the party losing credibility among supporters, losing votes in the upcoming elections and thus losing its grip over parliament. Second, the party itself will be motivated enough to reshape its approach toward politics, not for democracy but for the very selfish reason of surviving and staying in the game. If it failed to do so, the AK Party would be signing its own death warrant.
Erdogan, once a force for democracy, has been, especially in his third term, a hindrance of Turkish democracy. The Prime Minister, who suffered from lack of freedom of speech himself when he was imprisoned for reciting a religious poem in the late 90s, is leading a government that is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists for the second year in a row.
Since his third term, Erdogan focused on consolidating his and only his power by polarizing the country and ignoring the real issues, predominantly because the secular generals who he managed to tame, with the help of the Gulenists he has now disowned, were no longer a threat.
Therefore, thankfully, these regional and local incidents and realities over the past 10 months have created an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible for Erdogan to create a Turkey in which he enjoys a checks-and-balances-free ultimate power. This will hopefully lead to a new era in Turkish politics that sees more balanced political actors and less polarizing leaders.