A corruption investigation has picked apart the fabric of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and lifted the lid on the power struggles within the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has governed Turkey for a little over a decade. To make matters worse, the scandal has erupted with municipal and general elections approaching in 2014.
Turkish anticorruption investigators over the past few days have arrested almost 100 people, linked to a lesser or greater degree to the AKP, on suspicion of bribery, money laundering, gold smuggling and crimes relating to urban planning. Among the detainees are the sons of three of Erdogan’s ministers, all of whom have tendered their resignations. The investigation has seriously damaged the image of the governing party, which has always positioned itself as a standard-bearer for honesty and fair play.
But far from concerning himself with the accusations, the prime minister, with his customary defiance, has gone on the offensive, ordering a purge of high-ranking police officials and declaring himself the victim of an international conspiracy. Without giving names, Erdogan’s accusations point toward Fethullah Gülen, a writer and Muslim scholar who has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, and who directs a network of schools, charitable organizations and media interests. Erdogan accuses Gülen’s movement, based on the tenet of hizmet — altruistic service to the common good — of creating a “parallel state” rooted in judicial power, the state attorneys and the security forces.
In all probability this is likely to be the case, but it was precisely with the support of Gülen’s movement that Erdogan was able to evict the military from the center of political life, where it had resided since 1923. Only when Gülen criticized his ally for breaking off relations with Israel and leaning toward authoritarianism did Erdogan sweep the public institutions of Gülen’s supporters and shut down his network of schools.
“Foreign conspiracies” are the most common fallback for autocrats. Erdogan sought to justify last summer’s protests in Taksim Square with the same claim. It remains unclear if public opinion will be contented with this explanation, or with the sudden ministerial reshuffle with which the prime minister has attempted to defuse the crisis.
Polls continue to show majority support for Erdogan but the antibodies he generates are greater in number than ever before, and not just among the ranks of the dwindling opposition. The power struggle within the AKP has shone a spotlight on the party’s dirty laundry and put at risk the election plans of the prime minister, who intends to present himself in Turkey’s first presidential elections under universal suffrage next August.
At his zenith, Erdogan built a bullet-proof leadership based on his drive for democratization and economic growth in Turkey, besides his role as a supporter of the European Union and a regional arbiter. Now, with the economy slowing, negotiations to accede to the EU at a dead end, a growing inability to connect with the secular sections of society and with diminished neighborly relations, Erdogan’s fixation with power threatens to destroy his legacy.