x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Under pressure, Erdogan attempts to tighten his grip

The long-term viability of his political project may hinge on the next few months and, oddly, a couple of once relatively minor local elections, writes Ilhan Tanir

Photos of several luxury homes reputed to belong to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, found their way onto the internet recently. Such personal details have never previously been disclosed but now, thanks to the growing animosity between Mr Erdogan’s AKP government and the Gulen Movement, a powerful Turkish social-religious group, many of the prime minister’s private deals are being given a public airing – causing him untold political discomfort.

There are also criminal complaints against four of Mr Erdogan’s ministers who were sacked late last month in the fallout from the recent graft allegations. Separately, the administration has removed more than 100 prosecutors, approximately 200 judges and over 5,000 police chiefs and policemen across Turkey, in response to the investigations.

Mr Erdogan and his allies argue that there are elements within the judiciary and the security services who are plotting to overthrow his government. These elements are suspected to be the members of the Gulen Movement who launched these investigations. Mr Erdogan has called the organisation a “virus” that is packed with traitors.

Just last weekend, speaking at a party rally in Ankara, he also lashed out at one of the most influential business organisations in Turkey for portraying a negative picture of the Turkish economy: “Saying that foreign direct investment will not be made in Turkey is treachery,” Mr Erdogan concluded tetchily.

For many people, Mr Erdogan’s removal of officials and his public questioning of the patriotism of others seems more like a panicked reaction to the corruption allegations. Many of the suspects are businessmen with commercial connections to the administration.

Earlier this year, Mr Erdogan brought a bill to the Parliamentary Commission to change the structure of the board of judges and prosecutors. Most critics viewed the move as an attempt to bring the judiciary under the executive body, which would have served a blow to the principle of the separation of powers. The bill was halted only after EU leaders delivered strong messages of displeasure to Mr Erdogan during his recent visit to Brussels.

Amid what is possibly the biggest power struggle since the 1980 military coup, Turkey’s economy has begun to suffer. In the space of a few weeks since the corruption scandal began, the Turkish lira has lost more than 15 per cent of its value against the US dollar.

Known for its heavy dependence on foreign direct investments and short-term money flow (“hot money” to use the parlance of economists), Turkey is facing troubling times. Inflation is running at more than seven per cent and the current-account deficit is growing. Private savings and exports are shrinking. Economists have begun to liken Turkey’s current figures with the country’s last major economic crisis in 2001, a period that essentially paved the way for the AKP government to come to power in the first place.

Embattled on all fronts, the AKP is believed to be pressing for a judicial indictment to label the Gulen Movement as illegal.

While the two largest conservative blocks are clashing, the CHP, the secular main opposition party, is gaining ground in Ankara and Istanbul ahead of impending local elections.

The CHP had put forward Mustafa Sarigul, one of its most popular district mayors as its Istanbul mayoral candidate. He is known to get along with many diverging segments of society from seculars and leftists, to Kurds and the Gulen Movement.

In Ankara too, CHP’s mayoral candidate comes from the nationalist tradition. If the CHP were to win one or both of these cities it would change the calculations of the Turkish political landscape after the local elections.

Meanwhile, part of the secular intelligentsia seems to agree with Mr Erdogan and believes that the Gulen Movement represents a serious threat to the state.

Against increasing criticism on social media and in parts of the press, the Erdogan government has also prepared a draft law giving the government’s top telecom authority the right to block websites or remove internet content without referring the matter to the courts. This new draft law has sparked renewed public demonstrations against Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies.

Once hailed as the symbol of stability for Turkey and a model of democracy for the Arab Spring countries to follow, Mr Erdogan now faces being cast as a symbol of instability. The long-term viability of his political project may hinge on the next few months and, oddly, a couple of once relatively minor local elections.

Ilhan Tanir is a Turkish analyst, who writes extensively on Turkey-US relations, Syria and issues related to the wider Middle East

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