Embroiled in the middle of a corruption scandal that has relit the tensions that have been simmering since summer, Recep Tayyip Erdoğa, decade-long Prime Minister and strongman of Turkey looks to be in a precarious position. He is the head of the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) and has succeeded in consolidating power both internationally and domestically. His early years in power were marked by a liberal slant, at odds with the AKP’s socially conservative stance, which won him much favour with the West. In recent years, however, there has been a slow but steady increase in conservative policy.
The summer protests of 2013 were the first clear sign to the international community at large that cracks were beginning to show. It was the first large-scale event that indicated Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic rule of law. The police response was both clumsy and heavy handed, and Erdogan’s rhetoric likened the protests to a full-out rebellion; in light of the ‘deep state’, it seems he may not have been wrong. Mere months later the corruption scandals of December 2013 emerged, leaving Erdogan and his government severely tarnished. 3 cabinet ministers resigned in the immediate aftermath, as their respective sons have been investigated on corruption allegations.
But why does it look like Erdogan is losing his grip after over a decade of smooth sailing?
The answer lies in the ‘deep state‘; the idea that behind the formal institutions of the state, there is an ulterior power, hiding just under the surface. The name of this ‘deep state’ is the Hizmet or Gulen Movement, a religious movement and social movement led by Fethullah Gulen, with ideological and financial interests in education, media and for-profit clinics. The Hizmet are estimated to number up to 8 million with members well placed in Turkish institutions, from high up police officials to within government itself. This is the “foreign-backed” movement that Erdogan claims is plotting against him; the founder of the Hizmet, Fethullah Gulen has lived in Pennsylvania in self imposed exile since 1999.
But it hasn’t always been so – Erdogan and the AKP were once allied with the Hizmet, if not in a marriage of love, then one of convenience. With the Hizmet’s help, Erdogan has steadily been consolidating power, shutting down any other centres of influence: the media, businesses and most importantly in this country set in Kemal Ataturk’s light, the military.
With no other centres of power in his way, Erdogan’s next logical target is the Hizmet, illustrated by his announcement in November that the government will be closing down Hizmet schools, a major source of influence and money for the movement. His reasoning is that these privately run schools favour wealthy families in urban centres but his motivation isn’t benign – Erdogan is trying to manoeuvre against the Hizmet and they know it. Time is running out for the Prime Minister, his term ends in August of this year and the Hizmet are trying to push their favoured candidate President Abdullah Gulen for the top job. The timing seems rather too coincidental considering that soon after the announcement of school closures, a corruption scandal erupts, immediately thereafter a number of police who were investigating were dismissed, ostensibly because they are Hizmet affiliated.
For now, it remains to be seen just how powerful Erdogan is head-to-head with the Hizmet. He has been in power for a long time and remains popular, especially in the countryside, but the Hizmet are more deeply entrenched still, and in a political system of Ottoman complexities, nothing is as it seems.