For months now there has been open war between the AKP and its erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement. The feuding can be traced back to an overzealous Gülenist prosecutor’s attempt to interrogate Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, and things have spiraled downward from there, with Gülenist media outlets such as Zaman now routinely slamming the prime minister and government officials making shadowy threats about the Gülen movement having to be put down. When the government announced a couple of months ago that it was going to shut down the largely Gülen-run prep schools called dershanes, things began to get really nasty, and despite Tayyip Erdoğan’s eventual partial walk back, in which he announced that nothing would be done about the dershanes until September 2015, this was an effort to strike directly at the Gülenists’ livelihood, which they could not simply ignore. The aftermath of the dershane fight saw all sorts of uncomfortable leaks about the government, including the revelation – that the government did not deny – that back in 2004, the Turkish National Security Council had issued a directive (signed by Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül) that plans should be made to counter and block the Gülen movement. While deputy PM Bülen Arınç and others immediately claimed that the directive was only advisory and was never implemented, the damage was done and the fighting between the top layers of the AKP and the Gülenists was fated to keep on escalating.
That brings us to today, when Turkish police arrested nearly 50 people at Halkbank, including the sons of two cabinet ministers, over corruption allegations in the government tender process. Halkbank has long been reputed to be actively involved in evading U.S. sanction on Iran, and indeed is the bank that processes Turkish payments for Iranian oil and gas, so it is highly likely that this probe is not based on fictitious charges. Nevertheless, it does not escape notice that the Turkish police and judiciary are dominated by Gülenists, and that the Istanbul prosecutor’s office has now arrested a number of people who are prominently connected to the government. Given the timing involved, this does not seem like a mere coincidence. I’ll also note that this fight has been taking place on the margins for awhile (in June 2012 I speculated that a split was coming, and I think that my hunch about who had tapped the PM’s office was likely correct in light of recent events).
Parsing what exactly is going on here is difficult, but I’ll take a stab at it nonetheless. The first big mystery is why Erdoğan decided to take a conflict that had been going along at a barely perceptible simmer and turn it into a huge conflagration with his aborted move against the dershanes. My hunch is that after three national elections in which each subsequent margin of victory was larger than the previous one, Erdoğan decided it was time to flex his muscles and show the Gülenists – who are in many ways natural rivals given their own Islamic, conservative backgrounds and tendencies – who was boss. In doing so, Erdoğan made a mistaken political calculation to rival the mistake he made in his approach to Gezi. If you need proof of this, think about how the conversation a few months ago was about who Erdoğan was going to install as a puppet PM after he assumes the presidency, and now it’s about whether he will be able to control his own party. Because Erdoğan never admits wrongdoing and loathes backing down, this feud was destined to get worse, and my bet is that it will get even worse still. Erdoğan is not going to crawl into a corner and lick his wounds, and I’d bet my last Turkish lira that the fallout from this will get uglier yet. As of this writing, Erdoğan is putting together a board that will have the power to fire prosecutors, which is a direct shot across the bow at the Gülenists.
The second big mystery is what the Gülenists hope to get out of this. There are some who think that the electoral alliance between the AKP and the Gülen movement is now over, but I’m not so quick to declare this marriage completely spent. I don’t see that the Gülenists have anywhere else to go; are socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth voters suddenly going to abandon the socially conservative, religiously pious, pro-growth party and vote for CHP? The same CHP that in public and in private denigrates religious voters, or that is so closely associated with the institution – the military – that is the Gülen movement’s biggest foe? I find it very difficult to see a situation in which that is a long term or even sustainable short term political solution for Gülen adherents. I think what is going on here is a struggle to take over the AKP rather than cast it aside now that the Gülenists are feeling personally threatened by past and present government decisions. Based on what I observe, the calculation seems to be to weaken the party ahead of municipal elections in March to the point where some important posts, such as the Istanbul mayoralty, are lost, and make the AKP higher ups realize that they risk losing a great deal if they so blithely cast the Gülenists aside. At the same time, the Gülenists seem to want to do whatever they can to destroy AKP officials or keep them under their thumb, which explains the rumors flying around now about AKP ministers on tape accepting 7 figure bribes and the Halkbank prosecutions. I don’t think the intention here is to break away from the AKP, but to more thoroughly control the AKP.
The great danger in all of this, of course, is that once things get too far out of hand, there is no going back. The Gülen movement may want to show how valuable/powerful they are in an effort to control the party, but the law of unintended consequences always rears its head and may end up blowing up the party instead. Similarly, Erdoğan may want to put the Gülen movement in what he views as its proper place while keeping them in the fold, and instead could prompt his own downfall. There is just no telling where all of this will lead, and neither party seems to want to back down or deescalate in any way. Both the AKP and the Cemaat may have a final aim in mind and think they know how to get there, but the environment right now is amazingly combustible and volatile. Each side is playing a very dangerous game of chicken, and anyone who claims to know precisely how this will end is much wiser than I. But stay tuned, because this is a battle of epic proportions whose chaos has the potential to overwhelm everything else taking place in Turkey.