international analysis and commentary

Turkey’s domestic tug of war: fragmented politics and the security sector


Recent events have revealed the extent to which the alliance between Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gülen movement (a vast, faith-based community that supported Erdoğan’s AKP party since it was founded) has become strained. Over the last decade, the AKP and the movement mutually benefited from the alliance: Gülen followers offered a formidable and loyal constituency for the ruling party, while the AKP’s consent proved fundamental in allowing members of the community to gain prominence within key national institutions (primarily in the judiciary and in the National Police). However, the anti-corruption operations that have shaken the Turkish government since mid-December seem to have marked the end of the AKP-Gülen ticket, and point towards the beginning of an all-out political war between the two.

Only days after prosecutors approved the operation that led to the arrest of several prominent figures, including the sons of three (now former) AKP ministers, Erdoğan gave dispositions to dismiss a number of officers involved in the investigation (including Huseyin Capkin, Police Chief of the Istanbul Province) claiming the corruption case was nothing more than a political plot against the AKP. The following weeks have brought a salvo of reassignments, sackings and suspensions within the National Police, along with a strongly contested parliamentary bill that aims at bringing the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK – until today an independent disciplinary authority overseeing Turkey’s judiciary sector) under direct ministerial control.

Long forgotten seem to be the days of the Gezi Park protests that started in May 2013, during which Erdoğan hardly missed a chance to laud the professionalism and the integrity of Turkey’s police forces. Back then, just a few months ago, the police was indeed pivotal in projecting Erdoğan’s power and relentless political will into the streets of Turkey, where millions protested against his increasingly authoritarian style. But now the political dynamics have clearly shifted, as pro-AKP media retaliate by accusing the National Police of having robbed the government of several hundred millions of Turkish liras earmarked for its pension fund, and  AKP representatives label policemen following the corruption case as “criminals”. The politically-driven re-shuffle within police ranks apparently paid off, as the new police chief of Istanbul Province has allegedly decided not to follow up on a prosecutor’s order for a new wave of arrests, calling off the police operation that was under preparation.

If the National Police is thus viewed by the AKP as a potential adversary for its lack of political support, Erdoğan knows he can still count on the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence services. Over the last few years, MIT has seen its mandate significantly expanded, and its main representative, Hakan Fidan, has worked in very close cooperation with Erdoğan ever since his promotion to chief of the agency in 2010. MIT’s first groundbreaking operation was uncovered by the press in 2011, when a leaked recording revealed that intelligence top officers had held a series of meetings with senior leaders of the terrorist group Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) to discuss an agreement that could have ended thirty years of violence. At the time, the move was so unexpected that even the Turkish military claimed the operation caught them off guard. In fact, the revelation triggered an attempted prosecution of Mr. Fidan and other MIT members who were at the meetings, on the basis that any form of dialogue with a terrorist organization had to be considered a crime in itself. Prosecutors allegedly cooperated with members of the police intelligence, raising doubts over whether the case was nothing more than a turf war between police intelligence. Upon MIT members’ refusal to testify, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant, further fueling the suspicion that the case was running on political, rather than judicial, motivations. At that point, PM Erdoğan took the matter into his own hands and put together an ad-hoc law that instituted a special authorization, to be seeked by prosecutors who wanted to trial MIT officers, that the Prime Minister could grant upon discretion.

If Erdoğan’s intervention momentarily solved the problem, frictions between police and MIT remained. A blame-game between police intelligence and MIT got the attention of the Turkish media in the aftermath of the Reyhanli bombing, when, in May 2013, two car bombs killed more than 50 people in the Hatay province, on the Turkish-Syrian border. In that instance, both the local police chief and the local MIT chief were dismissed. More recently, a new police-MIT clash erupted in the midst of AKP’s corruption scandal, with an episode raising the suspipcion that elements of the intelligence services have been carrying weapons to Syria. AKP ministers offered vague and contradictory statements on the issue, but whether the government is using MIT to send weapons to Syrian rebels remains to be confirmed: this, in any case, this seems to be the smoking gun that pro-Gülen media are looking for in order to further discredit Erdoğan’s government. In the meantime, they focused on a leaked recording, that appeared on the web in mid-January 2014, in which MIT operatives allegedly instructed Omer Guney, currently under arrest for the assassination of three PKK members in Paris in January 2013, on how to carry out the murder and evade undetected.

Not even the Turkish military, once the sole guardians of Turkey’s national security, has remained immune from the tug-of-war between Erdoğan and Gülen. Hundreds of military officers, found guilty of coup-plotting, have been imprisoned over the last five years. After a strongly contested trial which the AKP and Gülenists staunchly defended, therefore, what remains of the military’s top brass is the more moderate and politically docile fraction. But now that the fight between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement has become an all-out war, AKP representatives seem to have surrendered to the temptation of setting the military against the Gülenists, by hinting at the possibility that there might be a retrial for those generals who are behind bars. After all, one of Erdoğan’s top advisers has claimed, everybody knows that the trial was a set up. In fact, the gravity of Turkey’s current political crisis seems to be epitomized by the fact that the idea of a retrial has been endorsed by Erdoğan himself. The increased politicization of the security sector might bring short-term advantages to the AKP; long-term consequences, however, will be detrimental for Turkey as a whole.