Skip to main content

Is instability the 'new normal' for Turkey?

By Fadi Hakura, Chatham House, Special to CNN
updated 10:58 AM EST, Wed January 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Four government ministers were forced to resign after being tainted by a corruption scandal
  • Erdogan has denounced the corruption investigation as part of an "international conspiracy"
  • Fadi Hakura says the allegations relate to a power struggle between Erdogan and a cleric
  • He says it has disrupted their informal coalition and may lead to a more robust democracy

Editor's note: Fadi Hakura is the associate fellow and manager of the Turkey Project at the London-based think-tank Chatham House. He has written and lectured extensively on Turkey's political, economic and foreign policy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- With elections scheduled for August, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs this year to be better than the last. But just six months after the damaging Gezi Park protests, the Turkish government is now engulfed in a wide-ranging anti-corruption probe.

Police have so far detained more than 50 high-profile suspects, including the sons of three ministers, a real estate tycoon, a mayor and the chief executive of a major state bank.

Erdogan has reacted furiously to the allegations, repeating accusations about an international conspiracy that seeks to undermine the stability of Turkey. Hundreds of senior police officers have been sacked or reassigned and the prosecution team has been reshuffled to impede the course of the investigation.

The Prime Minister has also removed four ministers tainted by the scandal from their posts and now seems to be laying the path for the retrial of military officers sentenced in coup plot cases known as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer.

Fadi Hakura
Fadi Hakura

Read more: Turkey purges police force

On the surface, the whirlwind of current events appears to expose a government soft on graft and influence peddling. In reality, the allegations have less to do with justice and probity, and more to do with a clash of interests between Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Pennsylvania-based Islamic preacher and one-time Erdogan ally against the military and secular establishment.

The Gulen movement controls over a hundred schools worldwide, media assets, a bank and diverse businesses, and reputedly has many sympathisers in the judiciary, police and intelligence services.

Read more: Turkey -- corruption or power struggle with cleric?

Turkish police force purged
Political turmoil in Turkey
Arrests shock Turkey's political elite
Inside the power struggle in Turkey

The timing of the corruption allegations is not coincidental. They come ahead of local elections in March, followed by presidential elections in August in which Erdogan plans to run. He needs to achieve an overwhelming victory in the March elections and, in particular, must win Ankara and Istanbul to stamp his authority on the Turkish general elections expected in June 2015.

It is too early to tell whether Erdogan has suffered any loss of popularity. Ultimately, his staying power will depend on the state of the Turkish economy at the time of each respective election.

The Erdogan-Gulen trench war is defined by three factors that reflect broader developments. Firstly, Erdogan comes from a Muslim Brotherhood tradition, favoring pan-Muslim solidarity and party politics. Gulen, on the other hand, is an Anatolian group rooted in Turkish nationalism and focused on social and religious activities.

These differing traditions, unlike the experience in Arab countries, have ensured a functional separation and conflicting objectives between political Islam and Islamic social movements.

The conservative instincts in much of Turkish society, such as an excessive respect for authority at the expense of individual rights, provide fertile ground for Islamic groups to flourish and for conspiracy theories to take hold.

According to a recent poll by Ersin Kalaycioglu and Ali Carkoglu, two of Turkey's leading sociologists, many Turks retain a rural and religious outlook rather than a modern urban perspective prevalent in thriving cities such as London, Paris, New York and Tokyo.

In such a setting, personalities tend to trump rule-based institutions and governance, meritocracy is sacrificed for personal connections and interpersonal trust is seriously undermined. No wonder that the media coverage of the anti-corruption investigation has focused principally on two individuals and has ignored the concerns of the Turkish public.

'Middle Income trap'

This conservatism is a critical obstacle to the advancement of democracy and the future prosperity of the Turkish economy and prevents the necessary political, economic and social reforms. In the absence of these reforms, a slow growth regime -- sometimes referred to as a "Middle Income trap" -- is taking hold.

As I discussed in a recent Chatham House report, growth rates of 3% or lower will become the norm rather than the exception. It is no surprise that the start of the Erdogan-Gulen feud began in 2011, when Turkey's rapid growth rate was beginning its decline.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing saga, the seeds of division have been implanted in the informal Islamic coalition between Erdogan supporters and the Gulenists. Reconciliation, though possible, will be increasingly complicated by economic stagnation.

Political turmoil may be the outcome in the short-term, but perhaps it may presage the eventual transformation of Turkey into a more robust and stable democracy as this turmoil encourages Turks toward more transparency and stronger institutions.

Read more: Turkey -- from bridge to island

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fadi Hakura

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT