August 11, 2014

President Erdoğan and the new Turkey

Robert Ellis*

After an unpleasant electoral campaign, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has succeeded in becoming Turkey's 12th president with almost 52 percent of the votes in the first round held on Aug. 10. A referendum in 2007 made it possible for the first time to elect the president with a direct vote.

As incumbent prime minister, Erdoğan has derived maximum advantage from disproportionate media coverage, but characteristically he has been unable to restrain himself from running down the two other candidates, the former secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, and the Kurdish co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş.

Erdoğan has often referred to Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu's Alevi identity and to Demirtaş's ethnic background as Zaza, and he has mocked İhsanoğlu for being born in Egypt of Turkish parents. But Erdoğan really scraped the bottom of the barrel when he claimed he had been called something worse -- an Armenian.

Erdoğan not only made a fool of his carefully orchestrated statement on the anniversary of the Armenian genocide in April this year, when he expressed his condolences for Armenian suffering, but once again demonstrated the essence of his divide-and-rule strategy, where he holds on to power by playing one population group off against another.

Therefore it was great when the Turkish daily BirGün gave it to Erdoğan straight with the following headline: “Kılıçdaroğlu is Alevi, Demirtaş is Zaza, İhsanoğlu is Egyptian and you are a thief.” Because that is precisely what the present conflict in Turkey is about.

Economic growth

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it was with the expectation of a cleaner form of government than Turkey had hitherto experienced. That was why the AKP insisted that it was a "clean" party (the Turkish "ak" means white or clean). However, it wasn't long before it became plain it was business as usual.

All charges of corruption from Erdoğan's period as mayor of İstanbul were dropped, a tax amnesty, which covered his finance minister, was passed, and the Public Procurement Law was amended to exclude tenders concerning energy, water, transport and telecommunications. The law has now been changed 180 times during the AKP's period of office, rendering the process opaque. The Court of Accounts has also been unable to submit proper reports about the spending of state institutions in 2012 and 2013.

Since 2002, Turkey has experienced an impressive rate of growth. The national income has increased from $250 billion to $820 billion in 2013, and Turkey is now a member of the G20 as the world's 17th largest economy. Erdoğan's goal is to make Turkey the world's 10th largest economy in 2023, the centenary for the foundation of the Turkish Republic. At the same time, foreign debt has tripled to $388 billion, of which $130 billion is short-term debt.

A month ago, in a speech that almost lasted two hours, Prime Minister Erdoğan unfolded his vision for a new Turkey, mentioning that the central bank's exchange reserves totaled $135 billion in contrast to only $27.5 billion when the AKP came to power. What he neglected to mention was that the reserves are only sufficient to cover the short-term foreign debt, which has risen considerably because of difficulties in obtaining long-term credits.

The explanation came from Muharrem Yılmaz, then-president of the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association (TÜSIAD), who in January warned: “A country where the rule of law is ignored, where the independence of regulatory institutions is tainted, where companies are pressured through tax penalties and other punishments, where rules on tenders are changed regularly, is not a fit country for foreign capital.”

A month later, The Wall Street Journal acknowledged that the AKP had done a lot right for the Turkish economy a decade ago, but the prime minister's “political thuggishness” had put much of that progress at risk. It concluded that a prime minister who trashes the rule of law and treats his political rivals as enemies of the state is “a systemic risk.”


The driving force behind Turkey's growth has been construction, and public as well as private investment in construction has been responsible for much of the increase in employment in recent years. Both sectors have tripled their investments in the decade from 2003, and this area accounts for more than 80 percent of state investment and almost 36 percent of the private sector's.

Erdoğan has boasted about all the roads, hospitals, universities and airports that have been built while he has been in office, and there is no doubt that this is a source of both power and prestige. He has also launched mega-projects like the third bridge over the Bosporus and İstanbul's third airport, all to a value of more than $100 billion.

The first sign of resistance came in May last year, when a group of environmental activists opposed the destruction of a small park in İstanbul to make way for a shopping mall. This resistance quickly spread to the whole of Turkey in protest against Erdoğan's authoritarian style of rule, and the protests were brutally suppressed by the police with batons, tear gas and water cannons.

Twenty-six members of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, including doctors, architects and engineers, are now standing trial, accused of being the leaders of a criminal organization, in what Amnesty International has called “a vindictive, politically motivated show trial.”

Erdoğan called the demonstrators "bandits" and claimed that it was an international conspiracy orchestrated by an “interest rate lobby.” His deputy prime minister, Beşir Atalay, even blamed “the Jewish diaspora.”

A dirty plot

The turning point for Erdoğan's government came on Dec. 17 last year, when the İstanbul police detained 52 people, including the sons of three ministers, the general manager of a state bank and an Iranian businessman with a Turkish passport, suspected of bribery and abuse of office in connection with public tenders and construction permits. Considerable sums of money were also found, including $4.5 million hidden in shoeboxes in the general manager's home.

This was followed by the resignation of the economy minister, the interior minister and the environment and urban planning minister. The EU minister was removed in a Cabinet reshuffle. The economy minister, the interior minister and the EU minister have subsequently been accused of having received $65 million in bribes for helping the businessman, Reza Zarrab, with the export of gold to Iran. Zarrab later boasted that he reduced Turkey's balance of payments' deficit by 15 percent.

According to Erdoğan, this was “a dirty plot” against the government organized by a former ally, the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, who since 1999 has been resident in the US. Gülen's Hizmet ("service") movement is behind a network of schools and institutions in more than 140 countries, and in Turkey manages 60 percent of the 4,000 courses ("dershane"), which prepare students for the civil service and university entrance exams. As part of its struggle against the movement, the government has closed the courses from September next year.

Members of the Hizmet movement are believed to occupy high-ranking appointments in the police force, judiciary, the civil service and even the military, for which reason Erdoğan has decided to cleanse the state of Gülen's supporters. To date, more than 20,000 police officers, judges, public prosecutors and civil servants have been removed in a campaign reminiscent of Stalin's purge of Trotsky and his followers and Hitler's purge of Ernest Röhm and his Brownshirts.

Two other operations against corruption in İstanbul were blocked and the same has happened to similar operations in 42 out of Turkey's 81 provinces. All the suspects have been released and Zarrab has again access to his assets. The work of a parliamentary commission tasked with investigating the charges of corruption against the four ex-ministers is continually delayed, so there is doubt whether it will be completed.

In a new wave of arrests ordered by Erdoğan, this time over 100 high-ranking police officers have been detained, accused of the illegal surveillance of, among others, Erdoğan and his government. As a spokesman for the CHP remarked: “Around the world, the police chase thieves. But things are different in Turkey. The thieves are chasing the police.”


Before the local elections at the end of March, Turkey was shaken by revelations of government corruption, which appeared in social media, in particular Twitter and YouTube. These are allegedly recordings of telephone conversations between Prime Minister Erdoğan and media bosses, the arrangement of public tenders and bribery as well as interference in the judicial process.

The most notorious is what is allegedly the recording of five conversations between Erdoğan and his son, Bilal, which begins on Dec. 17, the day of the first round of arrests in İstanbul. Erdoğan is heard telling Bilal to "zero" all the cash they have in the house, but at the end of the day Bilal still has 30 million euros left. However, the next morning he can reassure his father that everything has been "zeroed."

Erdoğan has confirmed that he made a call to a media executive and to the minister of justice, but his office called the recordings of his conversations with Bilal “an immoral montage.” Yet he has admitted his cryptophone was tapped and audio experts believe the recordings are genuine.

Corruption is endemic in Turkey and when the economy was liberalized in the 1980s, Prime Minister and later President Turgut Özal remarked: “My civil servants know how to take care of business.” Not much has changed in Turkey, and the only difference since the AKP took over is that everything is done in the name of religion.

Erdoğan's definition of corruption is the embezzlement of public money, whereas he explained that the $4.5 million found in the general manager's home was "charity money." The alleged recordings, which have circulated on social media, show that Erdoğan and his inner circle have created an educational foundation, TÜRGEV, where Bilal Erdoğan is on the board, which receives "donations" in return for lucrative state contracts.

This view is supported by an influential professor emeritus of Islamic law, Hayrettin Karaman, who considers there is no problem if businessmen who win contracts from the state make donations to charitable foundations. TÜRGEV's accounts show that $99,999,900 was paid into the foundation in April of 2012. TÜRGEV has now admitted that the money was donated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Two months later, the king was permitted to build four luxury villas on a hilltop in İstanbul.

Rector of the Islamic University of Rotterdam Professor Ahmet Akgündüz has since praised the AKP government for only stealing 20 percent of the national income, as opposed to previous governments, which stole 80 percent.

A new constitution

There is a Turkish proverb: “To get the flea, I will burn the whole quilt.” This is precisely what Erdoğan is prepared to do to eliminate Gülen's cadres, which he calls “a parallel state.” The irony is that it was Gülen who helped Erdoğan come to power in 2002 and who supported him until Erdoğan's successful electoral campaign in 2011, when the AKP garnered 50 percent of the votes.

It was the same police officers and public prosecutors who are now being prosecuted or removed that were behind the show trials against the military, secular opponents and the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK). The specially authorized courts (ÖYM) established to deal with these cases have been abolished and those in prison have been released amid an international outcry over the long periods of detention and lack of due process.

Instead, special peace judges have been appointed with powers to investigate cases of corruption and terror, and lawyers close to the AKP have been appointed as high criminal court judges despite a lack of previous experience. Overall, it seems that Erdoğan is removing all barriers on his road to unfettered power.

Furthermore, he has been supported by a pliable president, Abdullah Gül, who has approved various laws on the judiciary, Internet and the intelligence service (MIT), which strengthens the government's grip on Turkey. Erdoğan's greatest opponent is the Constitutional Court, which has annulled parts of his legislation and prevented him from blocking Twitter and YouTube. Nevertheless, most of the media are under the government's control, because the media owners are dependent on government contracts inside their other interests, such as construction, industry, mining and energy.

In April, the president of the Constitutional Court, Haşim Kılıç, confronted Gül, Erdoğan and other members of the government and in his speech accused them of a “corruption of conscience” and using the judiciary as “a tool of revenge against their opponents and to provide logistical support for their ideological opinions.” According to the Constitution, the president is entitled to appoint the members of the Constitutional Court, and there is no doubt Erdoğan will avail himself of this right as well as other powers, which until now have only been of a ceremonial nature.

Last November, a parliamentary commission responsible for drafting a new constitution with extended powers for the president was dissolved, as they failed to agree after two years' work. Erdoğan has made no secret of the fact that he would like to see a presidency with the same executive powers as in the US, Russia and China, and with his victory on Sunday he now has the possibility of changing the Constitution.

In the 2011 election, the AKP secured 327 out of Parliament's 550 seats, but now the number of the party's deputies has fallen to 313 after several have defected in protest against the party line. There is still some way to go before the 367 seats necessary to change the Constitution without support from the opposition or a referendum, but Erdoğan hopes to achieve this in the forthcoming election, which must be held by next June. Nor can the possibility of an early election be excluded, if Erdoğan's successor, which he will appoint, finds this appropriate.

Turkey's new president is often quoted for having said: “Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it until you get to your destination and then you get off.” In which case, it won't be long before Erdoğan reaches his destination.

*Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.

Published on Today's Zaman, 11 August 2014, Monday