Turkey’s main opposition party recalled parliament this week for an extraordinary session to discuss allegations of corruption against four former ministers that have damaged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government ahead of Sunday’s local elections.
Fevzi Bilgin is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Rethink Institute, and an expert on his home country’s politics. He says the allegations involve billions of dollars in money laundering through international businessmen, and government officials receiving kickbacks from those operations.
“Normally, even just one of these charges would be enough to get the government down in a normal democracy,” Bilgin says. “The fact that it’s coming from a very successful government, a very popular government – that was a shocker. I think the AKP [Justice and Development Party, or Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi] base is still in disbelief.”
Erdoğan denies corruption and insists the allegations are a plot by followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Bilgin says the AKP effectively defeated every political rival over the past few years, or co-opted other conservative political leaders. The Gülenists are the only opposition left in Erdoğan’s way.
“When these investigations popped up, I think Erdoğan and his friends talked about how this was a great opportunity to get on these guys too,” Bilgin says. “So they chose the movement as a scapegoat, and relentlessly attacked and portrayed it as…effectively managed by U.S. or Israeli interests.”
Bilgin says public discontent with the government and Erdoğan’s defiance in the face of allegations make Sunday’s elections decisive, but he’s optimistic. Turkey has moved toward a more democratic and pluralistic society over the last several decades, and Bilgin says Erdoğan’s brand of aggressive secularism marginalizes ordinary Turkey’s citizens.
“I’m hopeful that in that respect, the people’s demands, the people’s democratic spirit, and this trend will take over,” Bilgin says. “But that may take a while. I’m not expecting an overnight change. It may take 1-2 years to settle all the issues in Turkey.”
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REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Fevzi Bilgin, welcome to World Views.
FEVZI BILGIN: Thanks for inviting me.
CRUISE: You're an expert on Turkish politics, and there's certainly a lot going on in Turkey right now in this last year and beyond. But most recently, we've been hearing a great deal about the corruption charges, so maybe you could give our listeners a sum-up of what's going on with these charges.
BILGIN: December 17 was a milestone in Turkish politics. On that day, Istanbul prosecutors launched an investigation, a very wide-ranging investigation, toward cabinet ministers, businessmen close to [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan himself. Among the allegations is corruption involving billions of dollars, serious bribes for government members, money laundering through international businessmen, and cabinet members or government bureaucrats getting their kickbacks from those operations. So normally, even just one of these charges would be enough to get the government down in a normal democracy.
JOSHUA LANDIS: Let me stop you for a second and try to go to the larger picture. The Prime Minister, Erdoğan, has been a superman of Turkish politics. He served two terms. He's changed a great deal in Turkey. His AK Party has won more and more seats each election. He tries to do something like Putin. Move from being prime minister - he's constrained by the constitution to two terms as prime minister - but he wants to become president. In order to do that, he has to change the constitution. To what extent were the demonstrations that broke out this summer, before all these corruption charges, linked to this attempt to continue on as the real power broker in Turkey? And what were the people so upset about this summer when they began to demonstrate?
BILGIN: Yes, let me start with that specific event, and then let's try to magnify, zoom out and see what is the real problem behind all this. Gezi protests started as part of an environmental campaign to protect the park. Because of unreasonable police reaction, and some of the statements made by the prime minister himself, people were very much agitated, and then tens of thousands of people took to the street to support the protesters. And then the protests spread all across the country and turned into some sort of social opposition against the AKP and Erdoğan. It was not about Gezi Park anymore. If you ask, "What was this about? Why did it become like this?" I think we have to probably go back two years or so in Turkish history. In 2011, after the victory of parliamentary elections by Mr. Erdoğan, in the winter of 2011, his approval rate was hovering above 70 percent. That was a very good rate. So apparently he was doing things right. He promised to reconcile with Kurdish demands. There was a new and exciting spirit about a possible new constitution to be written, drafted, and the country's economy was doing great. So all of these things basically contributed to this great, positive mood in the country. But then he started to do things that prevented these things from happening. There's a very strong and obvious consolidation of power by him in the party, and in general in the government. In the past, the AKP was the party of consultation, so to speak. Erdoğan was still the leader, but there were Number 2, Number 3, Number 4 people that could challenge him. But after 2011 that was not possible anymore. And not only that, the link between the leadership and the party in general, was lost. After these last two years or so, a small coterie of government bureaucrats, advisers, that amounted to maybe 30-50 people, formed around Erdoğan, and insulated him not only from critics, but also from internal voices within the party. So these people were much more decisive in terms of determining policies...
LANDIS: Would you say he was becoming a dictator, or is that too strong?
BILGIN: The trend may end up there, but this is more of a worrying consolidation of power. A trend for authoritarianism within a good deal of electoral democracy. But it's too early to call him a dictator.
LANDIS: Do you think his government can survive this turmoil? The opposition parties are saying he has to resign. It's unelectable. He can't escape it, and it's just a matter of time. The hawks are circling, in a sense. The vultures are circling. And he is going to lead his party, and Turkey, to a terrible demise unless he moves out of the way. Is that true, or is that just rhetoric from the opposition?
BILGIN: No, it's true. The charges are so, so serious. And the amounts are so enormous. This is the greatest corruption case in the history of Turkey. We have seen some really serious corruption cases that led to the demise of CHP, MHP coalitions in the 90s. The 90s was like a lost decade for Turkey. It was all about corruption. But the country has never seen this much. The fact that it's coming from a very successful government, a very popular government - that was a shocker. I think the AKP base is still in disbelief, and they don't want to believe that they closed their ears to all sorts of news and statements. They just don't want to believe it. So normally I think the charges were enough to get the government to collapse, and they should've resigned at the time, but the election will be decisive now. Basically, Erdoğan took the election road, and he said he wants to go to elections and see what the people think, then decide what to do.
CRUISE: Now, some of his supporters are saying that there is a plot. There is a conspiracy and they're saying that this is being waged by the Gülenist opposition to him right now. Can you tell us a little bit about who this group is, and if there is potentially any truth to this targeting of him and his party?
BILGIN: The Gülen movement originated in the 1970s around Mr. [Fethullah] Gülen, who was a Muslim cleric in Turkey...
CRUISE: Who actually lives in the United States, is that...?
BILGIN: Right now, yes. He used to live in Turkey. He was compared to other contemporary leaders who were much more moderate, and he basically encouraged his friends to focus on education, focus on keeping dialogue with seculars. The 70s was a very challenging decade for Turkey. It was a chaotic situation. By the 90s, because of the military rule and everything, everything was quiet, and in the 90s he came out publicly, and the movement came out publicly basically promoting an agenda that Islam and democracy can harmonize, can work together, so there should not be backtracking from democracy. Turkey being the most democratic country in the Muslim world at the time. While at the time, Mr. Erdoğan and his predecessor like [Necmettin] Erbakan and so on, they were coming from a political Islamist background, they were looking for an Islamic state with different names, and subscribed to a more top-down approach to transform society. Mr. Gülen was adamantly against it, but then the military intervention in 1997 basically attacked both sides. Mr. Gülen had to leave for the United States, and the Islamists lost their party. It was banned from politics, and Erdoğan served some time in jail. Then Erdoğan emerged out of jail as a democrat. He said "I'm a Muslim Democrat. I throw Islamist garb. Now I am a new person." [He] increasingly subscribed to the discourse that was developed by Mr. Gülen himself as a more conservative democratic discourse that created this "Muslim Democracy" notion. A strong subscription to EU membership. A strong subscription to democratic reforms, a civilian constitution, and civilian control of the military. These were important sides of the new discourse. So there were some convergence of values between the AKP and the movement. The movement is a social movement, by the way. It is not a political party. It doesn't have a political party. It has a vocal media. It has a lot of educational institutions in Turkey. So in that respect there is a considerable social influence that it has. This social base was happy to support AKP in the elections. But nonetheless, there was no organic relationship between the two. In the last two or three years, as AKP effectively beat all its rivals, and even co-opted other conservative political leaders, so the only thing left against Erdoğan's way was the Gülen movement, which was resisting co-option cannot be bought, apparently. Because of the media, because of the social base, the movement was increasingly critical of Erdoğan for abandoning the democratic discourse, the policies of moving more into the Middle East, moving more into the East, to Russia, China, and so on. Moving away from the European Union. So that's how it started. There was tension between the two since then. During the Gezi protests, the movement was not vocally supporting the protest, but they were not against it, either. Even Mr. Gülen at some point in time criticized Mr. Erdoğan for calling them looters. It's not the right way to approach this. There's no need to agitate people. So that didn't work well, and when we came to all the way to November, there was now an overt assault by the government against the Gülen movement and educational institutions in Turkey. Finally, when these investigations popped up, I think Erdoğan and his friends talked about how this was a great opportunity to get on these guys too. So they chose the movement as a scapegoat, and relentlessly attacked and portrayed it as a fifth column that is effectively managed by U.S. or Israeli interests.
LANDIS: As a last word, can I ask you, are you hopeful? Turkey has been a symbol of democracy and progress in the Islamic world. Are you hopeful that that's going to be fulfilled, or is Turkey going to see another lost decade, as you said before?
BILGIN: I am hopeful. I'm hopeful, and I'm going to tell you why. The political trend, the social trend in Turkey in the last 30 years was toward a more democratic, more pluralistic society. If you look at some of the developments, for example, this aggressive form of secularism, in the form of Kemalism, has been pretty marginalizing in the last 10 years. People were not happy about the way the government treated the Kurdish minorities, or the non-Muslim minority. There have been great changes in the other areas. AKP won three elections, one after another, just because they basically subscribed to these notions. Now they are battling with this trend. And this trend so far has beaten all adversaries. It seems like it's a very strong trend, and I'm hopeful that in that respect, the people's demands, the people's democratic sprit, and this trend will take over. But that may take a while. I'm not expecting an overnight change. It may take 1-2 years to settle all the issues in Turkey.
CRUISE: Well, I guess we'll wait and see how these elections turn out. Thank you so much for joining us.
BILGIN: Thank you, my pleasure.
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