What on earth is going on in Turkey these days? At a time when the country has serious economic, foreign and domestic policy problems the government seems to be focusing on minor issues that threaten to unravel the aura of progress and omnipotence created by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the last 10 years.
Vindictive reprisals continue against anyone accused of being associated with the Gezi Park protests last spring. Students suspected of involvement have been thrown out of university dormitories. Others have had their state grants revoked. The list of journalists fired by easily intimidated media bosses continues to grow. Companies that are accused of not toeing the government’s line are threatened with massive tax inspections.
Businessmen I have spoken with are convinced their telephones, emails and faxes are tapped. One business leader said his employees do not use mobile phones or faxes. “We’ll talk when I am in London next month,” was his response to a question. Such is the paranoia among business leaders outside the charmed government circle that when you do get an interview you are likely to be asked to remove the battery from your mobile phone. “They can listen to anything you know.” George Orwell where are you?
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has now carried his vendetta against university students to new levels in decreeing that co-ed dormitories or even private apartments will no longer be allowed. The ensuing uproar among his fellow countrymen living in the 21st century did not faze the prime minister. He may well have calculated that any uproar in that segment of society will only strengthen his base before the upcoming municipal elections.
But in a bizarre move that threatens to break open the long-festering dispute within the ruling party the prime minister recently moved to close the so-called dershanes, private cram courses to prepare students for the critical university entrance exam. The move ostensibly was aimed at levelling the playing field for university applicants by removing the advantage of wealthy children who can afford the courses.
The problem for Erdoğan, and indeed for his entire party, is that the move directly challenges one of his major supporters, the shadowy but powerful Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen who established many of the dershanes. From his farm in the United States, where he fled from legal action in Turkey many years ago, Gülen controls a vast ‘movement’ of supporters in Turkey and other countries.
Gülen says he symbolizes the ‘soft’ power of Islam and devotes his efforts to sponsoring schools and health care facilities around the world. The dershanes are a key part of his program in Turkey. In addition to providing the required exam tutoring many people in Turkey say Gülen also uses the school to recruit members for his ‘movement’.
Gülen and Erdoğan, who hates any competing power base, have never been close. But as long as Erdoğan was working for increased religious influence in the Turkish government Gülen lent his support. But now that Gülen’s movement has gained power within Turkey through strong positions in the judiciary and police it can more easily oppose Erdoğan.
Where Erdoğan was strident, harsh and unrepentant Gülen would appear to be softer, more conciliatory. During the Gezi Park protests last spring when Erdoğan was relying on tear gas and police batons Gülen would issue impenetrable statements seeming to urge – as far as anyone could understand them in Turkish or English – dialogue and conciliation. Gülen, whose supporters have been accused of driving the so-called Ergenekon case against alleged coup plotters, has recently urged that the elderly plotters should be released from their long prison sentences. Divisions between President Abdullah Gül, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç and Erdoğan surfaced during the demonstrations with Gül and Arınç urging more tolerance. Since then Gül has missed no opportunity to distance himself from Erdoğan’s increasingly divisive policies.
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Now, with the policy on the dershanes, Erdoğan is forcing an open break with the Gülen movement. Gülen has used the newspaper Zaman, to condemn the move against the dershanes and to urge his supporters to remain strong the face of opposition.
It is difficult to see a clear winner in this contest between two camps within the religiously oriented AKP. Ministers assumed close to the Gülen movement are dropping broad hints that Erdoğan has only a short time left in active politics and that the jockeying for power has begun within the post-Erdoğan AKP. President Abdullah Gül has been particularly coy about his plans. Will he run for president again? Or will be step down and become Turkey’s next prime minister? At moment he is the most popular politician in Turkey. He will calculate his next step very carefully indeed.
In theory, internal party rules ban Erdoğan and 72 other AKP members of parliament, from running again. This apparently leaves Erdoğan no choice but to run for the non-partisan presidency. While no one doubts that he could change the party rules in a minute, Erdoğan has often said he will do no such thing.
The rub for Erdoğan is that currently the presidency is largely a ceremonial post with no real power. He is trying desperately to change that and create an executive presidency along French lines. But is by no means clear that he has the required support in parliament for the constitutional change required for a change in the nature of the presidency. Again, certain ministers close to the Gülen movement are dropping hints that the issue is off the table. President Gül, for one, has publicly stated his opposition.
Are we witnessing the frantic actions of someone facing the end of his absolute control? Or are these manoeuvres aimed merely at solidifying his base to repel all challengers? It is too early to tell for sure. But meanwhile, serious issues for Turkey continue to mount. And time is one luxury the country certainly does not have.