A breath of fresh air for Erdogan

By Nicolas Wattelle, MEDEA Institute

In early March, Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that he would step down in case of his party AKP’s defeat in the local elections.All this to say that the Prime minister of Turkey will still remain a long time in the political landscape of the country after a plebiscite-like victory of his party at the municipal election this Sunday 30th March, 2014. With 45.5% of votes, a small decrease compared to the last legislative elections (49.9% in 2011), his popularity has hardly been eroded. He got even more votes compared to his result in 2009 (38.8%). However, in spite of those good results, we can argue that since last year his credibility is more and more damaged.



On 28th May 2013, a hundred of pro-environment militants and neighborhood associations have been demonstrating against a project to rebuild an ex Ottoman barracks and a commercial centre. This project included the removal of 600 plane trees in a park close the Taksim place at the heart of Istanbul, which already miss a lot green spaces. Facing the extreme brutality of the riot police, the revolt got an unprecedented importance in the air of urban guerilla. The conflict reached Ankara and spread across 60 cities. All the opposition forces were demonstrating together in this “Turkish spring”: western-style youth with beer in hand, and left-wing trade-unions making friends; staunch kemalists and supporters of the Republic speaking to Kurds, while Islamist-inspired militants of anti-globalization chatting with LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender). 

© Mehdi Chebil

But this unholy mess has been quickly cracked down two weeks later by Mr Erdogan, both giving a bad image abroad and worrying about an increasing potential of threat from the Turkish civil society.

This demonstration on Wedsnesday 12 March 2014 still provide the proof because of tens of thousands of persons rallying in the popular neighborhood of Okmeydani to honor the memory of Berkin Elvan, who died the day before after 269 days being in a coma. Rallies also took place in many cities, such as Ankara, Adana (south), Izmir (west) or Mersin (south) to protest against the regime’s brutal response.

The Gülen Movement has also contested and in a different way Mr Erdogan’s leadership. Muslim sect, social and religious lobby, the Gülen Movement claims it has millions of sympathizers in the world. The 72-years-old imam Fetullah Gülen in exile in the USA since 1999 and called by his supporters hocaefendi (“respected professor”), inspires and runs this movement.

© REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency.

Originated in the 1970s, the movement is thriving for twenty years behind the scene. Officially apolitical, it is suspected to have infiltrated bureaucracy, to control the police and a part of the judiciary power. Very flexible, it is functioning as a nebula of associations of all stripes, particularly active in education, business and media. Moreover, the movement is well unified. Some observers do not hesitate to compare it with the Opus Dei because of its powerful networks within the Turkish State and the administration, a fact that the secular-minded forces have denounced.

When he was re-elected in 2011, Mr Erdogan had received a decisive support from this powerful lobby. However, they began to clash after the events on the Taksim Place. The movement had stated that it did not approve the crackdown on the demonstrators. Some senior officials close to Mr Gülen said they don’t agree with the Prime minister’s opinions. The conflict between the two ex allies start genuinely in November 2013 when the government announced he intended to close down the schools of support session (dershane) of the Cemaat (the community), its main funding. About one million of students were following these lessons after their courses and on week-ends. The price was about 300 to 1000 euros.

It is this decision to ban dershane which has led to the outbreak of the anti-corruption operation in 17th December 2013 against Erdogan’s friends. This operation was decided by Istanbul Prosecutor Zekerya Öz, known to be close to Gülen’s networks. More than 50 persons were arrested, including three ministers’ sons (Economy, Interior, Environment), the managing director of the public bank Halkbank, employers, businessmen and AKP members. This is the beginning of a massive purge in the police. It was followed by many anti-government protests demanding Mr Erdogan to step down. The Prime minister decided then to reshuffle his government, firing the ministers whose sons were accused, and he denounced a “large-scale conspiracy”.

In late February 2014, a new case appeared and involved directly this time the Prime minister himself. In a record dated 17th December 2013, a man described as Mr Erdogan advises another one, described as his elder son, Bilal, heard as a witness by prosecutors in charge of investigating corruption, get rid of about 30 millions of euros, just hours after the crackdown of the police. Turkish opposition called again Mr Erdogan to resign. Registration was released few hours after two newspapers close to the regime revealed that it accused judges close to the Gülen Movement, to have tapped thousands of people, including Mr Erdogan. The latter was politically weakened due to this case.

At last a new case has still discredited Mr Erdogan in the opinions of his opponents. The Turkish government ordered, on Thursday 27th March, three days before the municipal election, to ban Youtube, one week after a similar decision on Twitter. This decision followed the release on Thursday on Youtube the record of a discussion in which four high senior officials, including the Turkish minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmed Davutoglu, and the head of the intelligence services (MIT), Hakan Fidan, were speaking about a possible military operation in Syrie, perhaps creating pretexts to intervene. Many citizens have denounced a measure of “censorship”, the muzzling of freedoms and an authoritarian shift in the decision-making power.


© Stephff

To conclude, it is surprising that the authoritarian shift and all the corruption scandals of Mr Erdogan and his close friends were not punished in the ballot box. This suggests that much of the Turkish voters accept a corrupt government and increasingly authoritarian. But another part of the voters is still opposed to the Prime minister and his government. On the one hand, a stubborn and imperceptible youth, citizens who are politically ill-organized, demonstrating in all the cities of the country and still angry; on the other hand, the Gülen’s supporters, invisible and sneaked into the State and politically well-organized. These forces might still demonstrate against the government before the next presidential elections in August.