Turkey’s Erdogan seeks military support after falling out with Islamists

January 3, 2014

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has spent a decade trying to curb the political power of the country’s military, but now there are early indications he wants the support of the generals as he confronts the more serious threat of vengeance by his former Islamist allies.

Erdogan is turning to the military for support as he fights for his political life against the supporters of popular Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen.

Since coming to power in Turkey in 2002, Erdogan has aided Gulenists to grab key positions in the police and judiciary. This was all part of his policy of Islamisation of Turkey, whose 1924 constitution defines the country as a secular republic, with the military having tacit authority to block any efforts to create a religious state.

It will be astonishing if Erdogan can survive this crisis, however. His ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, is being torn apart as the Gulenists in the judiciary and police launch corruption investigations and prosecutions of party members and their families.

In the last decade Erdogan has overseen vigorous advances in the Turkish economy and the re-emergence of Ankara as a major influence in the politics of the Middle East, rivaling the authority of Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

That revived stature is likely to disappear with Erdogan’s political career. He cannot run for a fourth term as Prime Minister, and plans to be the AKP candidate for president in the summer.

To that end, he plans to enhance the executive powers of the presidency, but because of the chaos within the AKP and the widespread perception that Erdogan has become more and more autocratic, it is highly unlikely he can secure the two-thirds parliamentary majority he needs to make these changes.

Erdogan began to think his Islamist allies had become too powerful during the course of the trial of hundreds of former and serving military officers accusing of planning a 2003 coup, known as “sledgehammer,” to remove the newly-elected AKP government.

After five years of sometimes incredible testimony, that trial came to an end last August with dozens of convictions and prison sentences.

The key investigators and prosecutors of the alleged coup plot were all avid supporters of Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States.

The Prime Minister has since accused the Gulenists of becoming “a state within a state.” In his January 1 televised address to the nation Erdogan called on his 76 million fellow Turks to fight what he calls “a plot by foreign-backed elements.”

Responding to signs that Erdogan is shifting his support toward to military, Turkey’s armed forces’ General Staff earlier this week launched a legal action for a retrial, alleging much of the evidence was fabricated, and demanding an investigation of the circumstances around the prosecutions.

Today, Friday, there is a further indication that Erdogan is turning to the military to save his political life. In a meeting with parliamentary reporters in Ankara, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc gave firm support for the generals’ demand for a retrial and investigation of the Chief Prosecutor’s office, though he stopped short of pledging that those convicted in the “Sledgehammer” case would be given amnesties.

Arinc did, however, give a strong indication of how deep the divide has become between Erdogan and the Gulenists when he gave credence to reports that the government has a list of 2,000 members of the Islamist group involved in an alleged “plot” to take over the Turkish state.

The report of the list came in a January 2 message on Twitter by Erdogan’s top political adviser Yalcin Akdogan, who is seen as his master’s voice on issues the Prime Minister doesn’t want to talk about directly. It was a newspaper column by Akdogan published on Christmas Eve in which he criticized “those who conspire against their country’s national army, national intelligence and national bank, and civilian government,” that prompted the military General Staff to launch its legal action for redress.

Fethullah Gulen represents himself as heading a movement promoting public service by people following strong moral principles. Former members, though, say the organization is strongly hierarchical and fervently Islamist.

Gulen fled Turkey in the late 1990s after a video surfaced in which he appeared to by urging followers to secure key positions in the government, judiciary and police so they could take over the running of the state.

When Erdogan came to power in 2002 he adopted the Gulenists as a ready-made network with millions of supporters to back his movement for a larger role for religion in Turkey’s public life and the curbing of the power of the military.

That support has helped Erdogan get re-elected twice, but it has also seen the movement establish itself in public life with the aid of his patronage. The movement has also become very wealthy with the proceeds of a chain of schools, media companies, and hospitals.

Once Erdogan decided that the Gulenists had become a threat, he signaled the breach by public musings that he might close down the movement’s schools.

The response from the Gulenists came on December 17 when police acted on an investigation by Istanbul’s Public Prosecutor and arrested more than 50 people suspected of corruption. The list of suspects included several AKP politicians, influential business people and the sons of three cabinet ministers.

The three ministers — of economics, urban development and the interior — resigned on December 25, and the next day Erdogan fired seven other ministers in an attempt to staunch the corruption scandal before it got out of hand. He has not succeeded. Information contained in a summons issued by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor for the arrest of Erdogan’s 32-year-old son, Bilal, on allegations of corruption has been leaked to the media.

The Turkish military has launched three military coups in recent decades – in 1960, 1971 and 1980 — in response to what it sees as its role as “guardian of Turkish democracy.”

At the moment there is no strong sign that Erdogan will call on that duty to save his own political skin, but that day may come.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com