30 December 2013

Turkey: Is This The Beginning Of The End For Erdogan?

If you are reading this blog, chances are you already know about the huge graft scandal in Turkey.

In case you missed the highly entertaining soap opera, two weeks ago, Turkish police conducted several raids and took 52 prominent people into custody and seized over 4 million dollars in bribe money neatly stored in shoe boxes. They subsequently arrested and charged 24 of these people. Among them were the sons of two members of PM Erdogan's cabinet and the CEO of a state controlled bank. The CEO was accused of money laundering on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I found the story rather amusing and initially, I thought about writing about the underlying ironies.

And there are many, starting with the acronym of the ruling party. You see, its supporters do not use the abbreviation of the party (the AKP) but go with the acronym AK Party, as "ak" means white and has a strong connotation of "clean" in Turkish.

To be sure, this cleanliness was never really accurate. Many AK Party politicians became extremely wealthy in their 11 years in power (including Erdogan himself who is rumored to have become a multi-billionaire on his meager PM salary). But with media consolidation after 2007, no corruption allegation ever made it to the mainstream, leaving the party free to claim a clean image. This is now over and the acronym must be an embarrassment.

The second fun fact is about the identity of the prosecutor behind the graft investigation. His name is Zekeriya Oz and he was one of the leading prosecutors for the deeply flawed Ergenekon trial. At the time, the ruling party hailed him as the brightest star in the judicial firmament and when he was reassigned in 2011 by the board of judges and prosecutors, senior AKP politicians bitterly criticized that decision as a blatant effort to change the course of independent judicial inquiry.

Now that it transpired that Oz was behind this year long investigation, the same senior AKP leaders, who had vouched for his objective and brilliant judicial mind for the Ergenekon case, are publicly claiming that Oz is an agent of the Hizmet movement and the whole thing is a politically motivated witch-hunt.

In other words, exactly the charge they dismissed as rubbish throughout the Ergenekon trial.

The third irony is about the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon cases: when the previous Chief of General Staff (who was promoted by Erdogan and who worked closely with him throughout his tenure) was arrested and later given a life sentence for trying to overthrow the government, the PM lamented that his hands were tied as he could not intervene in any investigation or judicial process.

This time around, the day after the scandal became public Erdogan dismissed or moved more than 100 police chiefs and officers and appointed two new lead prosecutors to the case, with the explicit instruction that decisions will be taken by a majority vote (two out of three). Moreover, one of the prosecutors in the original investigation claimed that a large part of the case was removed and various arrest warrants he signed were not executed. If this is not interfering with an investigation or judicial process, I don't know what is.

Fourth irony: Sledgehammer trial was about a plan that was never executed. Yet the government and the prosecutors argued that a plan was the same as an actual execution.

A month ago, a 2004 document signed by Erdogan, the then Chief of General Staff and the then Minister of Foreign Affairs (and current President) Gul was leaked to the media. It enacted a plan to destroy the Gulen movement.

When it became public, Erdogan argued that it was just a plan that was never implemented and as such it should not be taken seriously.


But, as the scandal unfolded, I realized that there was something more interesting than the ironies.

Is This Mutually Assured Destruction or a Foreign Plot?

There are two competing explanatory narratives about the scandal.

One side maintains that this is a vicious power struggle between the Erdogan wing of the Turkish Islamist movement and the Fethullah Gulen camp. And they claim that the struggle is about to turn into a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) type of war.

As you probably know, Fethullah Gulen is a moderate Islamist preacher who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania on a special talent visa sponsored by former CIA agents. While his movement (known as Hizmet or Service) is ostensibly a philanthropic organization running charter schools all over the world, many people believe he has serious political ambitions beyond his charitable work. And they assert that, as part of these plans, he directed his followers to infiltrate the judiciary and the security apparatus in Turkey.

Those who see Gulen's tentacles within the state argue that the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) is the only state structure that eludes him. And as proof, they refer to the February 2012 events, when a special prosecutor executed an arrest warrant against the Director of MIT, Hakan Fidan, freaking Erdogan out, in the process..

Accordingly, Erdogan's recent decision to close special prep schools (largely run by the Gulen organization) is seen as a strike against Gulen. Those schools are a major source of income for the Hizmet movement and perhaps more importantly, they operate as recruitment centers for the Imam.

In that scenario, last week's corruption scandal seems to be Gulen's counter strike. Recently, a Turkish journalist specializing on the Hizmet movement reported that a senior Hizmet figure was arrested at a US airport (link in Turkish) with many corruption dossiers implicating senior AKP leaders. The journalist claimed that the FBI submitted that treasure trove to the MIT, which, in this scenario, is the only security unit loyal to Erdogan.

The other narrative is put forward by Erdogan and his defenders and they depict these events as an American plot to get rid of him. According to these media outlets, Gulen is an American agent and one of the key players in that plan.

The more I read about the facts surrounding the case, the more I realized that maybe this is not an either-or proposition and these two narratives might actually be complementary.

There is a civil war between the Erdogan wing of AKP and the Gulen movement. Gulen movement is indeed well placed in the judiciary and security forces to be able to pull a secret year-long investigation with absolutely no leaks.

And it surprises no one (at least not me) that the US now sees Erdogan as a liability and its regional plans would be better served if he could be replaced with a less temperamental and more malleable leader.

Since Gezi events, I more or less assumed that there was an outline of a plan to remove him. But it was hardly the ingenious and nefarious coup plot Erdogan supporters claim. It was a simple re-branding effort which relied heavily on Erdogan's predictably over-the-top reactions.

But there is a twist.

Let me explain.

The Plan (If There Was One)

While many people are convinced that Gulen is an insidious opportunist driven by his ambition to become the leader of Turkey, I see him as someone who had made a Faustian pact to become the religious leader of mainstream Islam.

As I mentioned before, his ideology is the only coherent and modernist counterpart to Wahhabi or Salafist teachings. In that sense, he fits perfectly into what I see to be the American plan for the Middle East. Which also explains how and why he continues to live peacefully in Pennsylvania and his visa applications are sponsored by former intelligence officers and ambassadors.

As for his nemesis, Erdogan, my regular readers know that I singled him out as the lead actor in the US produced drama in the region. The problem is that, Erdogan, who was almost a method actor in the original Kabuki theater, has turned, over time, into a Chaplinesque caricature of an autocrat.

You must have heard of Baron Acton's dictum that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." After his last election victory, it has been reported that Erdogan stopped listening to other people and he began running the government with a small group of trusted aids. Apparently, he treats even his own ministers with disdain and mistrust. Throughout, there have been numerous reports that he is unable to control his temper (which some people attributed to his diabetes) and he routinely lashes out at journalists, civil society leaders or colleagues.

More importantly, in the process, he dropped the ball economically. His focus remained on large construction projects, which were designed to be glamorous for him and profitable for his supporters (the construction magnate Agaoglu was among those arrested). But he did very little to fix the chronic current account deficit or to stop foreign capital outflow.In fact, his polarizing rhetoric seemed to have accelerated the exodus of foreign capital making the current account deficit even worse.

On top of all that, he committed a series of blunders in the Middle East and alienated an impressive list of regional and global players, including Israel, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. And of course the US.

Given all this, I assume that there must be a consensus that he needs to go. You hardly need a conspiracy theory to see this. But how do you get rid of him?

His supporters find him charismatic and believe that he is a man of God, working tirelessly for the country and his constituency. They see him as their dragon slayer who will stand up to internal and external enemies.

How do you turn such a man into a pariah?

If I were asked to do it, I would take a page out of Joao Santana's book. I would first make him appear as an out-of-touch and out-of-control leader. This would galvanize and unify his opposition and solidify a darker image. Then I would expose his corruption dossiers. And this would make him appear the opposite of a man of God: a greedy politician filling his pockets.

It is not a very original idea but judging from the turn of events, it looks like someone else might have had the same inspiration.

Gezi events appears to be the turning point and (if such a re-branding plan existed) the first step.

And therein lies an interesting tale.

When Gezi protests erupted, Erdogan remained silent initially. He was scheduled to go to Morocco and he was expected to make a statement upon his return. At the time, President Abdullah Gul and Deputy PM Bulent Arinc were making conciliatory noises (both men are said to be "inspired by" Gulen). The expectation was that Erdogan was going to do the same upon his return.

However, I learned from reliable sources that just before his trip, Erdogan was submitted a report by his trusted aid Hakan Fidan, the Director of MIT. And the report concluded that the protests were actually a plot by foreign powers wanting to destabilize the government. It also claimed that radical left wing organizations were the main groups behind the unrest.

We now know that both claims were complete and utter rubbish.

Apparently, this made Erdogan livid and he immediately adopted a very belligerent rhetoric and a decisive action plan. He ordered the police to forcibly remove the protesters, he famously lashed out at them as "capulcu". And he introduced his extremely dubious "interest rate lobby" discourse.

The police executed his orders, wounding hundreds of people and killing at least four. It was a hugely disproportionate use of violence against peaceful demonstrators. Overnight, the opposition became unified and Erdogan appeared as an out-of-touch and out-of-control autocrat. Even some Islamist groups joined the protests.

Now, let's think about this for a minute.

First, there is the role played by MIT in this. If there is a "deep state," as people in Turkey would like to believe, a US controlled Gladio structure, wouldn't MIT be part of that shadowy apparatus? Historically, it certainly was. In fact, it was smack in the middle of it. So when I hear the MIT director submitting a completely bogus report to the PM and changing the course of history, I wonder whether the highly inaccurate conclusions of that report could be seen as an honest mistake.

If you wish to mislead the PM and encourage him to overreact to change his public image, is there a better way than give him such a report and let him hang himself? If you argue that Fidan is a trusted aid and he would never do that, I would suggest that stranger things have happened when it came to intelligence organizations.

Secondly, if the opposition narrative is correct and the police are controlled by the Gulen movement, shouldn't we question why they used such excessive force in implementing Erdogan's order to empty Taksim Square? If Gulen himself and Gulen-inspired politicians recommended a softer approach, why would a police force supposedly taking its orders from the movement opt for a massive use of force?

You see what I am hinting at.

Once the first step is complete and Erdogan's image is tarnished (and the opposition unified), the second step would be to open up the treasure trove of corruption dossiers. If there was such a plan, that is. And this is exactly what happened.

In fact, it is widely rumored in Turkey that more dossiers are being readied and some of them will implicate Erdogan and his family members. One of the ministers who had to resigned openly called for the PM's resignation and said that all of the large construction projects were approved personally by the PM. To me this is a thinly veiled threat against Erdogan. It means that they know the skeletons and they have the key to the closet where they are kept.

There is a third element that support the idea of a plan to politically terminate Erdogan. As I wrote recently, there has been an unmistakably clear and very successful re-branding effort to turn Gul into a caring and moderate politician. In fact, at every juncture, as soon as Erdogan staked a position Gul carefully moved away from that stance and made it clear that he did not approve of it.

If Gul does not accept to resign as president to make way for Erdogan to replace him, Erdogan has only one option left. He will have to publicly renege his commitment to term limits and fight for a third term in office. A year ago, this would have been fine and perhaps even encouraged by most observers for the sake of stability. But now, such a move would make him look like a greedy and power-thirsty politician even in the eyes of his supporters.

Which means his negative re-branding is almost complete.

What's Next?

I only have a couple of educated guesses for the short run. In medium and long term, I can only speculate on likely outcomes but not on the unfolding of events.

In the short run, I am pretty sure that the new Minister of the Interior, Efkan Ala, who is one of the closest collaborators of Erdogan (he was Prime Ministry's Under Secretary and he is not an MP) will go after Gulen supporters.
Ala, with his vast experience in bureaucracy, is expected to play a central and practical role in purging the followers of the G├╝len movement, who are particularly influential in the police and judiciary.
If his past behavior is any indication, Erdogan will also order tax audits for pro-Gulen businesses and he will try to prevent them from bidding in large state contracts. He might try to seize Zaman (the largest Turkish newspaper) and its English language counterpart, Today's Zaman and sell it to one of his supporters (it was one of his favorite tactics prior to media consolidation).

Almost as likely, the Gulen camp will retaliate with more corruption allegations and they will get closer to the PM with every leak. They might hit close collaborators first, then family members and finally the PM himself.

I also suspect that this slowly unfolding process will cost the AKP electorally, starting from the municipal elections early next year. My prediction is that their vote will hover around 35 percent but might go lower if particularly damaging information surfaces before these elections.

It is hard to speculate beyond that point because there are too many variables that might change between now and then.

But I can make two predictions.

One is that Erdogan will find it difficult to hang on to power in the next year or so and he might quit before the 2015 general elections citing health reasons.

Two, Abdullah Gul will become the new star of the party.

Many pundits see him taking over the PM post. I am inclined to think that he might prefer his current position which is above politics and work with another pro-Gulenist PM.

One name that comes to mind is Ali Babacan, a formidable technocrat who enjoys the work and does not chase the limelight.

He would be perfect as he would let Gul become the public face of the administration while he acts like a super trouble-shooter.

For once, I am actually curious to see how things will unfold..

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