Turkey government: On its last legs
Erdoğan’s government is rapidly losing control, writes Esen Uslu. But the opposition seems in no shape to take advantage
The AKP government under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has been in office for more than 10 years in Turkey, has passed its sell-by date, but is still desperately holding on. The problem for the bourgeoisie is how to replace it without suffering further damage, as Erdoğan and his henchmen thrash about.
The government was regarded as a water-tight coalition of several Islamist tendencies (plus some liberal and centre-right groups). One of the better organised of such tendencies has been Gülen Jamaat - or, as it likes to be known, ‘the Service’. It was formed around the Islamist preacher and educationalist, Fetullah Gülen (hence the name) or Hodja Effendi, as his followers call him.
According to recently revealed records of illegal phone tapping, the Erdoğan wing of the party gave special privileges to the Gülen Jamaat, including illegitimate access to the security and intelligence services, police and courts. As a result its people were placed in critical positions of power.
So long as it was spearheading the struggle to overthrow traditional military tutelage, the influence of Gülen Jamaat grew. However, once it overreached itself and turned its attention towards the problem of how to maintain political Islam’s hold on power after Erdoğan, the coalition split and everything started to come out into the open.
Matters came to a head when the sons of four cabinet ministers were arrested for corruption, heavily implicating their parents. It became apparent that the corruption was linked to sanctions-busting in relation to Iran, involving gold traded for Iranian natural gas. It seems that corruption went to the heart of the government, with allegations of billions paid in bribes and illegal arms exports to conflict zones. Despite all Erdoğan’s efforts, he could not resist the pressure to let go of four cabinet ministers, who were among his closest associates for many years. He had gone to great lengths, involving a change in the law, to protect them from prosecution.
His response has been to attack his former coalition partner, Gülen Jamaat, referring to its involvement in “the parallel state”. He also attempted to sort out the police bureaucracy: the number of senior officers transferred from one post to another has been almost impossible to follow. Some have been moved four or five times since mid-December, and several now find themselves suspended. Erdoğan turned on the judiciary too. The body overseeing the appointment of judges and prosecutors was replaced. The special counter-terrorism courts went too. Their pending cases transferred to ordinary criminal courts. In so doing, he sidelined judges and prosecutors thought to have had connections with Gülen Jamaat, replacing them with his own men.
Desperately needing new allies, he softened his stance on the military. He got legislation through that practically ended the trials against senior military figures and released many of the top brass who were awaiting their appeals against conviction. However, Erdoğan ensured that the thousands of Kurdish prisoners would not benefit from the legislation. He tried to appeal to the nationalist-statist centre ground, while putting the Kurdish ‘peace process’ on hold.
The government’s fall from grace actually started a couple of years ago when Erdoğan tried to challenge traditional family-based finance-capital groups, such as Doğan Holding, and Koç Holding, whose actions were seen as beyond the control of the Islamists. Traditionally Turkish finance-capital groups have thrived in the ‘greenhouse of the state’, enjoying ample credit facilities, guaranteed markets, state tenders, etc.
At first Erdoğan seemed to give in to pressure from the European Union for a competitive tendering law. But that law has been amended so many times by various rider clauses that it now has more holes than a Swiss cheese. The government tried to maintain its traditional tutelage over finance capital by withholding contracts, awarding them instead to the ‘Anatolian tigers’ - those newer groupings heavily tinged by Islamism.
However, some of the traditional finance-capital groups have grown so large that they are virtually immune from such pressures. So the government sought other means of control: unwarranted examination of books, fines for tax avoidance and similar actions. On one occasion the government opted to suddenly terminate a tendered contract for the building of a warship.
A similar operation against media groups has resulted in a situation where several newspapers now run the same story concocted in the AKP’s media kitchens under virtually the same headline. Anyone stepping out of line is severely punished: many journalists have been sacked and are now pariahs.
None of this was good news for the ‘international community’ - an unstable government in an unstable region is the last thing US imperialism wants. And, on top of all this, the Syrian war was pulling the government towards the Salafi cause, and against the Shias and Alawis of the region. That shift had a major impact in the internal politics of Turkey, since the Alevis of Anatolia closely identify themselves with the Alawi Syrians, and the fear of a renewed wave of sectarian violence pushed Turkey’s Alevis into a more vocal opposition.
The attempt to ease the situation with regard to the Kurdish uprising in Turkey, with a view to improving relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, and expectations of exporting Kurdish oil through a new pipeline beyond the control of Arab Iraq, resulted in a deterioration in Turkey’s relations with the oil industry’s seven sisters, as well as the US and UK. Meanwhile, the gas field opened up off the coast of Cyprus became a new bone of contention with the Greek Cypriots, Israelis and the US.
The destabilisation of the northern shores of the Black Sea (Ukraine, Crimea and Russia) has added to the tensions in the Caucasus region and brought about a quite dangerous situation. An Islamist government meddling in the affairs of minorities in the region has become a fact, and the situation seems more and more out of control.
We may safely say that the AKP government is rapidly losing friends in the international arena. However, the instability of the region may still create opportunities for the Islamists to find a new lease of life.
The extent of popular opposition to the AKP government became apparent during last year’s events centred on Gezi Park in Istanbul. After a brief lull during the summer, the opposition was back on the streets as students returned to college.
They were met with brutal force. Tear gas, water cannon and baton charges became the daily routine in all the big cities. Mobile phones, the internet, Twitter and Facebook became the media for organising demonstrations, and they were targeted: the government passed legislation enabling it to lawfully record all tweets, messages and voice recordings, and use them as evidence, and allowing it to block internet communications. And state oppression now has an auxiliary: the AKP’s paramilitary Islamist militia is visibly involved, attacking demonstrators under the direction of the police.
As the local elections to be held at the end of this month approach, the opposition is stepping up the tempo with an eye on the presidential contest scheduled for July. While there has been no obvious move from within the AKP to get rid of Erdoğan, that is still a possibility - the outcome of the local elections could intensify the uncertainty. But the electoral opposition is not the same as the opposition on the street, and it does not seem capable of ousting the AKP - the next general election is to be held in 2015.
Traditionally in such impasses in Turkish politics the army has intervened. However, for the moment the military seems content with the more passive role assigned to it after the well-publicised trials involving its leading figures. That, of course, does not mean that a new military intervention is ruled out. So it seems to me that we are in for a bumpy ride.