Erdoğan’s Authoritarianism and the Deep State

I have a new entry at Lobe Log on Sunday’s municipal elections in Turkey, which handed Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a fairly substantial victory. AKP obviously remains popular among at least a plurality of the Turkish electorate, in spite of the ongoing corruption investigation swirling around Erdoğan, and the fact that he’s governed more and more like a dictator over the past year–restricting press freedoms, trying to block access to social media, firing investigators looking into the corruption charges, etc. If you thought electoral success might back Erdoğan off a bit, that doesn’t seem to be the case:

Despite calls for national reconciliation, Erdogan’s victory speech strongly hinted that he views AKP’s electoral success as a mandate to pursue additional harsh measures against his opponents. He declared that “the nation has foiled insidious plans and immoral traps,” and suggested that his opponents might “flee” in the face of forthcoming criminal charges against them. In the past Erdogan has argued that a vast international conspiracy involving the CIA, Western media, international bankers, and “the Jewish diaspora” is behind the opposition to his government. But his primary targets are the Turkish “deep state” and the so-called “Gulen movement.”

I’m not a big Tayyip Erdoğan fan (something about tear gassing peaceful protesters bugs me), but I try to be fair here, and in fairness to Erdoğan his fear of conspiracies looming around every corner isn’t totally irrational.

I don’t know enough about Fethullah Gülen and his “Hizmet” movement to guess whether it really has the kind of juice in the Turkish police and judiciary to invent a corruption investigation against Erdoğan and his allies, which is what Erdoğan has been claiming. Hizmet seems to be kind of a shady group; it’s believed to have about 10 million followers worldwide, but there’s no official membership list or organizational structure that anybody can ascertain. It’s possible there’s something to Erdoğan’s concern here, but it’s unclear.

Where Erdoğan is on firmer ground is in his concern that the Deep State (which is real enough that there’s a Turkish term for it, derin devlet) is gunning for him. Turkey was established as a constitutional republic in 1923, but in reality the Turkish security establishment, particularly the army, has worked behind the scenes to ensure that no elected official or party could really alter the basic structure of the state. Since the election of 1950, which ended 27 years of essentially single-party government in Turkey by bringing the Democratic Party to power over the Republican People’s Party (which was founded by Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and is the largest opposition party today), the Turkish army has overthrown three civilian governments (in 1960, 1971, and 1980) and nearly overthrew a fourth (in 1997, when a memo threatening a coup was enough to get the government to resign). The army’s primary concern has been that the civilian government remain secular, centrist, and stable; the coups all followed periods of considerable instability when the government was being assailed by Marxists on one side and Islamists on the other, and the threatened 1997 coup came in response to an elected government that was deemed too religious.

Erdoğan and the AKP were elected in 2002 mostly because the Turkish economy had tanked, but also because they promised to root out corruption and particularly to take on the stifling influence of the Deep State, which kept the country on such a tight leash that it was causing stagnation. Membership in the EU, which understandably has a problem admitting members whose elected governments tend to get knocked over by the army once a decade, was also at stake in AKP’s efforts to reduce the army’s involvement in domestic politics. So Erdoğan has taken the army on directly, trying a succession of top generals for alleged plots to overthrow his government, and given the army’s track record there’s probably been something to most of those trials.

None of this excuses attacking protesters, stifling dissenting media, or blocking investigations into alleged government wrongdoing. Erdoğan has been straddling the line between “reformer” and “demagogue” for a while now, using popular fears of foreign/urban/educated/elite treachery to shore up his support, and he’s really in danger of slipping entirely into the latter. AKP instituted a three term limit on members of parliament, and Erdoğan is thus theoretically barred from seeking another term in Parliament and, thus, as Prime Minister. He and Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, have talked about a Putin/Medvedev-style office swap that would result in Erdoğan running for president (a race he’d almost certainly win if Gül were not running), after some constitutional changes to beef up the powers of that office, of course. Gül would run for parliament and slide into the PM job under this plan, though he and Erdoğan have been at odds periodically since the Gezi Park protests started and it’s possible that Gül will run for reelection against Erdoğan (who would still probably win).

One of the most damaging leaks to come out of the corruption investigation, the one that motivated Erdoğan to try to block YouTube access, was a recording of government officials talking about taking military action against ISIS in northern Syria. They even went so far as to talk about manufacturing a justification for military action by sending agents into Syria to fire rockets at unpopulated areas across the Turkish border. If Turkey moves into Syria it could widen that war even further, so this certainly bears watching.

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