In the early years of its rule, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) got on well with the vast network of followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic leader from Turkey living in self-imposed exile in the United States. His loosely affiliated organization, often called Hizmet, runs thousands of schools, businesses and media outlets in more than 150 countries, including many in the U.S., and has in recent decades entrenched itself deeply into Turkey’s bureaucracy.
Until recently, many Gulenists held key positions in the police and judiciary and helped the AKP by fabricating evidence in politically driven trials in return for status and influence. But relations between the two conservative groups began to deteriorate a few years ago. The split became final in December 2013 when police and judicial officials launched a vast corruption probe that implicated top government officials and leading executives.
After his AKP’s March 2014 election victory, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — at the time the prime minister and now the president — swore revenge for what he saw as a Gulenist coup attempt. “We will go after them in their lairs,” he said.
The charges have since been dismissed, and the judges who launched the probe have been sacked. The government has reassigned some 80,000 police officers and 2,500 judges and prosecutors, largely remaking the justice system. In October, Ankara designated the Gulen movement a national security threat. Then on Dec. 11, an anonymous “Ankara insider” who uses the handle Fuat Avni warned in several tweets of a security operation the next morning. He said that Gulenists would be targeted in retaliation for the corruption probe and that 400 people would be arrested, including nearly 150 journalists.
After a public backlash, the government scaled back its plans, according to Avni, who said the crackdown would take place on Dec. 14 or 15. Few were surprised when early on Dec. 14 police swarmed the Istanbul headquarters of the Gulen-linked Zaman Media Group, where some 1,000 demonstrators had gathered in expectation of the government’s action.
Authorities arrested Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily paper, along with some 30 other journalists, television producers and police officers in more than a dozen raids across the country. Most of the detained were charged with fabricating evidence in a 2010 investigation and establishing an armed terrorist organization. Among them was the scriptwriter of a drama series on a Gulenist-linked TV station. Police cited the show’s dialogue as cause for the arrest.
The European Union, the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch and countless other international observers quickly denounced the arrests. Even pro-government observers offered critical comments. Speaking on television, AKP-friendly journalist Abdulkadir Selvi said the arrests “did nothing but shame Turkey.” The market also responded unfavorably, as the lira fell to an all-time low against the U.S. dollar.
Dumanli and several detained police officers have since been released, but an Istanbul court has ordered the arrests of four more people, including Hidayet Karaca, the head of the Samanyolu Media Group, and Tufan Erguder, a former head of the Istanbul Police Department’s anti-terrorism branch. They are charged with leading and being members of a terrorist organization.
“Everything is being done according to the laws,” Erdogan said at an economic meeting on Dec 20. “Nobody is being lynched before the process is over. A clean process is ongoing now.”
Though its elections are mostly free and fair, Turkey’s state institutions are weak. This has enabled its leaders to embrace their inner authoritarian since the days of the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In previous eras, power grabs would prod the military to step in and hit the democratic reset button.
As political analyst Eric Tillman points out, this dynamic is not unlike those seen in Venezuela, Argentina, Thailand and Egypt. But thanks in part to the Gulenists, Turkey’s military has been defanged in recent years. With a largely moribund opposition, the only remaining threats to the AKP were the Gulenists and a critical press. The raids kneecapped both foes in one fell swoop.
In response, a New York Times editorial spoke of Erdogan’s “paranoid bullying” and Turkey’s “descent into paranoia.” But the government has largely admitted this process is about consolidating power. “Today is a test day,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said hours after the raids, echoing strongmen everywhere. “Everybody in the country will be held to account or awarded for what they did.”
The AKP has been supremely Machiavellian about gaining and consolidating power. Its method:
- Win votes. (The party is nine for nine in elections since its founding in 2001.)
- Befriend a vast, influential group of fellow conservatives (the Gulenists).
- Work with that group to cut down the free media and secularist military in show trials.
- Cut loose and cut down the Gulenists.
- Increasingly crush dissent, silence critics and control media and information.
Two weeks after the raids on the Gulenists, Turkish journalist Sedef Kabas was arrested for a single tweet criticizing a prosecutor's decision to drop a 2013 corruption investigation. Earlier this week a veteran Dutch journalist based in southeastern Turkey was detained for a few hours on charges of terrorist propaganda.
Taken together, these actions represent a troubling attack on freedom of speech and media independence. Some of the targeted Gulenists may have an anti-government bias, which is often reflected in their reporting, and some may have helped fabricate evidence in dubious trials, but none of this justifies state repression.
The press crackdown follows new laws that expand police powers to detain, search and wiretap, highlighting a dark turn for NATO member and EU candidate Turkey. It means the AKP’s New Turkey project is nearly complete. The final objective seems to be to gain a two-thirds parliamentary majority in June’s elections, enabling officials to alter the constitution to create an executive presidency.
Anything that might endanger that mission is likely to be seen as a threat to the state and dealt with accordingly. Erdogan’s consolidation of power is another sign of the government’s willingness to take extralegal action to solidify control. And there’s surely more to come. A court in Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Gulen, who is accused of leading a criminal organization, on Dec. 19.
Erdogan seems to be in a celebratory mood. “Very beautiful developments are happening now and will continue to happen in Turkey,” he said at a recent inauguration of an oil refinery in Izmit. “All of these things are part of a normalization process.”
It’s this new normal that has Turks so concerned.