x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Only voters can decide the way out from Turkey’s crisis

Only Turkish voters, not politicians or commentators, have the right to declare their country is not a banana republic

“Turkey is not a banana republic,” said the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he denounced the corruption probe against his close associates earlier this month. Mr Erdogan slammed the probe as an attack on his government. Although such claims get him little sympathy beyond his supporters, even among those millions of people enraged by the charges most would probably agree that Mr Erdogan is under political attack.

Turkish citizens have become sadly familiar with frame-ups, allegations and trials as means to political ends. The government, feeling the heat, has reassigned dozens of police bosses and stonewalled investigators. Apparently the government’s concern for optics is as distant as its hope for a fair trial.

A key fact to consider is that the current crisis has a familiar ring to it, and it is not peculiar to the Erdogan government.

“Gangs” within the state, even a parallel state, that Mr Erdogan says are smearing his government are concepts fresh in people’s minds. Judges recently issued a verdict in the “Ergenekon” coup trial, finding dozens of military officers, politicians and academics guilty of forming a terror group within the state. In other continuing trials, thousands of people from Kurdish civil society are waiting in jails for judges to decide whether they are guilty of, among other things, setting up a parallel state. Critics of these and other trials, like the “Sledgehammer” case in which 240 army leaders went to jail for plotting a coup, say the accused have not been afforded due process.

The new law requiring senior (that is, political) approval for police investigations has its precedents too. Last year, the government passed an emergency law protecting Turkey’s spy chief from subpoena. It also legislated shorter prison sentences for football match fixers.

Israel and the “interest-rate lobby” are back again as well, last spotted stoking the Gezi Park protests – Israel and international bankers resent Turkey, the government says. And the prime minister’s talk of treacherous local “subcontractors” working for foreign paymasters sounds like what Turkish high school textbooks teach: that Armenian citizens of Turkey constitute an “internal threat” because their loyalties belong to a foreign nation.

It’s déjà vu all over again, a showcase of the country’s broken parts: institutions of law, order and media ruinously compromised by political power. This is also a unique and daunting challenge for Erdogan. In 2007, the army threatened a coup if the AKP-controlled parliament elected Abdullah Gul to be president of Turkey. And in 2008, prosecutors almost got the constitutional court to outlaw the AKP. But back then the AKP was more vulnerable; that the party wasn’t bent or broken suggests the army and judiciary were already back on their heels.

Today, Erdogan’s AKP is dug in, levers of state in hand, winner of three elections. Protests this summer, powerful and sudden, diminished Mr Erdogan’s clout, but he remained dominant. Conventional wisdom says the people now attacking Mr Erdogan, followers of Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher self-exiled in America, are up for the fight. That’s saying a lot. People are catching their breath at the firepower now facing off.

There is also irony. Though it presides over much dysfunction, the government deserves credit for Turkey being a brighter place, on balance, than ever before – also, many say, thanks in part to the Gulenists. Those political trials – run, people say, by Gulenists – brought the “deep state”, army and Kurdish civil society all to heel. (Others say they were taken hostage.) Either way, the government and others had space to shift power, touch taboos and greatly reduce the killings, torture and terror that marked the worst of previous eras. But, critics say, Mr Erdogan’s success and hold on power, both unprecedented, has created a leader that sees himself as an elected dictator. And now Mr Gulen seems, to many, to be menacing Mr Erdogan like his nemesis.

Indeed, many correspondents accentuate Mr Gulen’s alleged reputation for moderation against Mr Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Certainly Gulenists like the contrast. While denying control of the corruption probe, Mr Gulen berates Mr Erdogan for hubris. But even if it were so simple, no real political contest is fought over such things.

Some say Mr Gulen idealises the Turkish nation while Mr Erdogan idealises the supranational Sunni ummah. Did this start the fight? Was there a last straw? Many incidents have been reported, but salvos shouldn’t be mistaken for the causes of war. The alliance was likely intact in September 2010, when a referendum paved the way for prosecuting coup leaders; getting the army out of politics was a common goal of Mr Erdogan and Mr Gulen, and some say the basis of the alliance. Then, in July 2011, the military chiefs resigned en masse; army tutelage in Turkey was no more, people said. Now two powers – Mr Erdogan’s AKP and the Gulenists – were left standing, without a common foe.

No one outside the fight really knows how incidents like the attempt to interrogate the Turkish spy chief or the government’s plans to shut down Mr Gulen’s (and others’) private preparation schools fit together within the dizzying context of the Arab Spring and PKK peace negotiations, but within this complexity Mr Erdogan’s and the Gülenists’ interests split.

Observers talk of a fight to the finish. If Mr Erdogan escalates, it would certainly match past tactics: he did that to the army in 2007, to Kurdish hunger strikers in 2012 and to protesters this year. But what’s “the finish”? All of Mr Gulen’s schools and newspapers shuttered? His people purged? Turkey would then become a plain spy state, ruled by blacklist. Or could Mr Erdogan go like Margaret Thatcher, shown the door by his own? Would people tolerate unelected Gulenists dividing the AKP in this way? Elections seem the only sustainable way out. Only voters, not politicians or commentators, have the right to declare their country is not a banana republic.

Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist who covers Turkey