On Dec. 17, swarms of Turkish police, acting at the behest of prosecutors known to have links to the Gulen movement, arrested the sons of three cabinet ministers and at least 34 others for graft. The move signaled the definitive end to the alliance of convenience between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Imam who presides over a global movement of followers dubbed the Hizmet (or Service) movement.
In response, the Gulen movement has leaked numerous audio recordings online that purportedly implicate Erdogan, his family, and many of his closest advisers in corruption. The recordings have rocked Turkish politics and have prompted Erdogan to rely heavily on nationalism, political polarization, and questionable legal tactics to frame the allegations as a massive conspiracy aimed at forcing him from power. Erdogan has since directed the bureaucracy to purge members of the police force of suspected Gulen sympathizers, sidelined the graft probe’s prosecutors, and is believed that have played a direct role in the government’s recent decision to shut down access to Twitter. In doing so, Erdogan has sought to transform the March 30 local election into a referendum on his tenure as prime minister, and, by extension, to use populist electoral tactics to absolve him of graft allegations.
To ensure that a criminal case is not pursued, Erdogan is resorting to “strongman” tactics that are eroding the foundation of Turkey’s democratic system. While the Gulenists’ use of leaked audio recordings are far from perfect, their recent actions are a reflection of Erdogan’s previous willingness to use them to advance his own political interests, regardless of the rule of law.
According to political scientist Joel S. Migdal, “strongman” leaders operating in “weak states” sometimes have an incentive to weaken the bureaucracy to ensure that rival political actors don’t accrue the tools and power needed to overthrow them. They therefore have a perverse incentive to weaken certain elements of the bureaucracy, while favoring others. Erdogan has used this tactic before, but, in a significant contrast from the present, the Turkish prime minister previously used the Gulen movement to weaken his main political enemy, the military, and other Kemalist strongholds in the bureaucracy.
The alliance has never been all that cozy and the rash of audio recordings that have since leaked clearly indicate that the Gulen movement had been making preparations to defend itself, should its alliance with the AKP falter. Nevertheless, after the 2002 election, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulenists had an incentive to cooperate. The two Islamist movements, despite having different political aspirations/worldviews, had a shared incentive to further liberalize Turkish society and to curb the power of the military. And, in order to do so, both needed to gain more political power.
After the AKP narrowly avoided being closed down for alleged “anti-secular activities” in 2008, Erdogan and his allies launched a judicial counter offensive spearheaded by the same Gulen allied prosecutors who had launched the recent AKP graft raids.
The two trials, known as Ergenekon and Balyoz, were originally intended to curb the power of Turkey’s “deep state” – and by extension, the military, and other Kemalist secular strongholds like the constitutional court – but eventually grew to include well-known critics of the AKP and Gulen on trumped up charges of terrorism/coup plotting. The evidence for the Balyoz trial hinged on electronic documents that technical analysis has since shown was digitally altered. Nevertheless, the court sentenced 300 military officers to lengthy prison sentences.
Yet, while the AKP certainly succeeded in curbing the power of Turkey’s military, it did so through the use of a bureaucratic proxy that posed an indirect challenge to Erdogan’s authority. Thus, after the military had been marginalized, Erdogan soon faced a new political threat, that he himself helped create. And, like other leaders before him, he had a choice: accept the status quo and try to appease the Hizmet – which would thereby have created a non-AKP allied power center in the bureaucracy – or work to curb the movement’s influence. Erdogan opted for the latter over the former. A clash was inevitable.
To counteract the Gulenists’ influence in the judiciary and police force, Erdogan has since taken steps to bring the judiciary under his indirect control, moved to tighten the state’s control over social media, and has increased the power of Turkey’s intelligence agency – which is headed by a close political ally. Yet, just like in the case of Ergenekon and Balyoz, the tactics are at odds with established democratic procedure, and thereby erode the AKP’s stated intention of strengthening Turkish democracy.
Nevertheless, Erdogan has championed the ballot box as the final arbiter of all that ails Turkish politics. Yet, in doing so, Erdogan is practicing majoritarian politics in an increasingly polarized political climate. Thus, as Turks prepare to vote in local elections this March, an AKP victory in key cities like Ankara and Istanbul could spark further anti-government protests. To counteract such a possibility, the government is certain to take more steps to ensure that the right to peaceful protest is further encroached upon.
And, when paired with the likely leaking of more recordings, Erdogan is sure to deem it necessary to further increase his hold over the government bureaucracy. Thus, even while Erdogan appears to have calculated that increased political polarization is the key to electoral success, it has come at a steep price for Turkish democracy.
While the AKP’s poll numbers may only decrease by a few percentage points (or perhaps not change at all), it will soon be faced with the prospect of governing an incredibly fractured electorate, and a sizeable minority who may deem Erdogan to be illegitimate. The scenario suggests that Erdogan may continue to resort to the strongman tactics he has been using to try to stifle dissent, both inside the bureaucracy and on the streets. And, more broadly, how elections can have “anti-democratic” implications.