Two experts discussed the current political crisis facing Turkey as a result of a government corruption scandal and how Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have responded to it.
On January 10, 2014, the Middle East Program and Global Europe Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center co-sponsored an event, “Of Plots and Corruption Scandals: The Crisis of Turkish Politics” with Henri Barkey, Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University, and Ihsan Dagi, Professor of International Relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Barkey stated that because the current corruption scandal is in its beginning stages, there were no sufficient answers to predict how the situation will progress. He framed the crisis in Turkey as one that has taken place on a few fronts. He explained that it is an internal crisis within Erdogan’s AKP party, which he said was fragile and insecure. Barkey described a domestic crisis caused by a lack of confidence in government institutions and speculation of a “state within the state” due to the influence of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. He noted there was also an external crisis based on international perceptions of Turkey that were being shaped by the corruption probe and Erdogan’s response to it; investor confidence has been shaken, and the Turkish lira has declined in value.
Barkey explained that it is impossible to consider the corruption crisis separately from the mishandled response to the Gezi Park protests of 2013; by blaming the social unrest on foreign conspirators, the government was forced to double down on the strategy in light of the corruption scandal. Barkey suggested that the emphasis on foreign meddling was intended to rally the AKP base supporters with an eye toward upcoming municipal elections, which the AKP expect to win despite a slight drop in support from the Gezi Park response. However, if support for the AKP at the polls drops significantly, Barkey believes that feuding between the party and its opposition would become more intense. He concluded by noting that some time had passed since President Obama and Erdogan had spoken to one another, suggesting that America’s tolerance for Erdogan’s accusations of foreign meddling have worn thin.
Dagi described the political situation in Turkey as the ruling party attempting to change the rules to ensure they remain in power for the long term. Despite government skepticism with regard to the timing of the arrests and motivations behind the prosecutors, Dagi noted that the investigations into government corruption began over a year ago. He said that the efforts to halt the prosecution of corrupt individuals made the government look bad and that there was no evidence of a foreign plot despite the government’s insistence. Dagi compared Erdogan’s attempts to hinder the investigation to those of former President Nixon during the Watergate scandal and noted that some of Erdogan’s efforts were against the Turkish Constitution. He suggested that the emergence of conspiracy theories and accusations of foreign plots changed Turkish governance by encouraging more authoritarian behavior and the criminalization of the opposition. Dagi stated that the crisis has negatively affected Turkey in terms of stability and predictability. He then said that the AKP may still win in the upcoming elections, but they could no longer be considered rational actors.
When asked what role Turkish President Abdullah Gul could have in resolving the crisis, Barkey noted that Gul was not a strong personality and was probably biding time; the longer the crisis lingers the more influence he could potentially wield as there is dissent within the AKP as well. Dagi noted that constitutionally, Gul’s influence was limited and framed the current crisis as one between the executive branch and the judiciary. He noted that the AKP was nothing more than the party of Erdogan, with whom Gul lacked leverage. He differed with Barkey, suggesting that it would be better for Gul to speak up sooner.
When asked about the influence of the military in Turkey, Barkey stated that supporters of both Erdogan and Gulen were against the military participating in politics, and both sides would put their differences aside if the military attempted a coup. Dagi said that any intervention by the military would change the political nature of the crisis. Barkey noted that the past alliance between the AKP and Gulen’s supporters was based on the mutual desire to remove the military from politics, but that Gulen considers Erdogan an autocratic ruler and Erdogan believes that Gulen’s supporters infiltrated the institutions of the state. Both Barkey and Dagi noted that the focus on Gulen oversimplified matters and that protests over Gezi Park have influenced the response to the accusations of corruption. Dagi observed that Gulen’s network is social rather than political, and throughout Turkish history autonomous institutions have not been well received.
By William Drumheller, Middle East Program