Erdoğan’s political catharsis, or pushing old friends away?

Erdoğan’s political catharsis, or pushing old friends away?

Addressing a group of international ombudsmen in Ankara on Sept. 16, President Tayyip Erdoğan tried to assure Turkey’s “Western friends” that the country is a democracy, not an autocracy. He said he wanted to underline this because people who want to undermine Turkey’s march toward an “advanced democracy” are trying to “manipulate” reality to create an adverse impression. Erdoğan particularly mentioned the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has resumed its acts of terror after a pause of three years, as well as the “parallels” (meaning sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist ideologue living in the U.S.) and their “extensions” in politics, media and elsewhere.

That statement came one day after an Istanbul prosecutor opened an investigation into the Doğan Media Group, (to which Hürriyet, the Hürriyet Daily News and CNN Türk also belong), on claims of “promoting terrorism” based not on any hard evidence but based on fabricated news recently published by a staunchly pro-government newspaper. 

Yesterday, the headline of a more influential pro-government daily, Sabah, was a quote from an interview with Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, saying the fight against PKK terrorism and the “parallels” should go hand in hand. 

Early in the morning on the same day, news broke about police raiding the headquarters of the Boydak Group of companies in the Central Anatolian city of Kayseri, within the framework of a probe against Gülenists. Its CEO Memduh Boydak was taken into custody together with seven of Boydak Holding’s executives. The group has been one of the rising stars of Anatolian industry for more than half a century, with production ranging from furniture to industrial cables, finance and energy. Memduh Boydak is also a member of the board of the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), which is Turkey’s top business club.

The Boydak Group was known as one of the main supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) after it was founded in 2001, mainly though (the party’s co-founder and former Turkish president) Abdullah Gül, whose hometown is Kayseri. The timing of the probe was interesting too, coming right after the AK Parti’s Sept. 12 congress, where almost all names close to Gül or close to a fellow member of the AK Parti’s founding triumvirate, Bülent Arınç, were cleansed and replaced with members more loyal to Erdoğan than to the party.

When the AK Parti first started its political journey, it was made up of three groups of supporters apart from its traditional roots coming from Necmettin Erbakan’s “Milli Görüş” (National View) understanding of political Islam.

The most influential among them, yet small in number, were urban Turkish liberals who were impressed by the “transformation” apparently led by the Erdoğan-Gül-Arınç team: The EU and its political criteria would no longer be denounced as a “Christian club,” and Erbakan’s Gaddafi-style “Just Order” economic program would be replaced by the rules of market economy. Some liberals thought that once “military tutelage” could be pushed back - by Islamic liberals, or “conservative democrats” as they liked to be called - there would be no obstacle left to stop Turkey from becoming an “advanced democracy.” Politicians in the U.S. and Europe were more than willing to buy that narrative. The honeymoon of liberals with the AK Parti was effectively ended by the way Erdoğan reacted to wave of Gezi Park protests in summer 2013, which he claimed was a “coup attempt” against the government.

A second group within the early AK Parti was made up of pious (or traditionalist) Kurds. These have always disliked the leftist Kurds and the PKK and were the main reason why the AK Parti was able to attract more Kurdish votes than the pro-Kurdish parties until this year’s June 7 election, in which the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) became a favorite not only of a majority of Kurds but also of Turkish liberals.

A third group within the AK Parti was made up of the quiet Anatolian constituents with a pacifist Sunni-Islam outlook, who used to vote for center-right parties for decades, including Islamist orders and groupings. Such groupings were like the followers of Fethullah Gülen. By the time the AK Parti came to power, the latter were already well-organized within the state apparatus, especially in the judiciary and the police. Erdoğan/the AK Parti therefore made use of their capabilities to push the military out of politics, while also pushing secular, leftist-democrats out of the system. That alliance came to an end in 2012, when pro-Gülen prosecutors attempted to interrogate the head of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) because of his contacts with the PKK, which were actually being carried out upon Erdoğan’s orders.

In the AK Parti’s Sept. 12 congress, Erdoğan initiated an inner party purge, believing that a more homogenous party would guarantee a better outcome in the Nov. 1 election, regaining the party’s parliamentary majority and giving him the opportunity to exercise extensive executive powers without bothering to change the constitution.

There have been many politicians in Turkey and elsewhere in the past who thought that such a political catharsis could guarantee success for them. Some of them even had short-term success. Perhaps future history books will mention Erdoğan and his AK Parti as the first example in history of achieving long-lasting success by pushing away old friends while all the time gaining more power.