Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is gaining the upper hand in Turkey’s political feud by purging a police force and judiciary that helped him become the country’s most powerful leader in decades, analysts and police experts say.
Prosecutors driving the corruption probe that shook the government when it was made public in December have been shunted off the case, and thousands of police officers reassigned. Erdogan accuses them of taking orders from his former ally, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose influence he has vowed to root out.
By dislodging the army as the dominant force, the alliance between Erdogan and Gulen reshaped Turkey. Now, the scale of the premier’s mobilization against the preacher threatens to do the same.
In addition to the firings, Erdogan has strengthened its grip on courts and slapped controls on the Internet, where investigation details and tapes of alleged wrongdoing have surfaced. A recording of what sounds like Erdogan and his son Bilal discussing ways to conceal funds was posted on YouTube yesterday. The tape is an “unethical” fake, Erdogan said today, vowing legal action. It amounts to an attempted coup, he said.
The European Union and Turkish business groups are among those warning of the risks.
“Erdogan is aiming to pack the state with loyalists,” said Anthony Skinner, head of analysis at Maplecroft, a research company based in Bath, England. While he’s ahead in the fight against Gulen, the “ongoing drive to flush out dissent will continue to have serious repercussions for the rule of law.”
The EU has urged Erdogan to ease curbs on free speech and let judges operate independently, to revive Turkey’s membership bid. Standard & Poor’s cited “an unanticipated erosion of institutional checks and balances and governance standards,” in cutting its outlook on Turkey’s credit rating on Feb. 7 to negative from stable.
Turkey’s currency, bonds and stocks were among the world’s worst performers in the month after the corruption allegations surfaced with the detention of businessmen, officials and the sons of three cabinet members on Dec. 17.
Erdogan responded by removing ministers who were implicated in the probe, and launching a counter-offensive. A second wave of arrests was foiled when officers loyal to the government refused to carry out orders from the prosecutors, who were subsequently taken off the case.
“We will expose the parallel organization,” Erdogan told lawmakers in parliament today. “This coup attempt will not go unanswered,” he said of the latest leak.
The police have been subjected to the biggest overhaul. The government is seeking to diminish Gulen’s influence in key units, including intelligence, organized crime and anti-terrorism, according to a former senior official in those units. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.
Interior Minister Efkan Ala told Kanal 7 television on Feb. 21 that 5,000 policemen have been reassigned, saying only 1,000 were related to the graft probe. He said two senior police officials involved in bugging Erdogan’s office had fled to an unspecified country, and Turkey would seek their extradition.
Interior Ministry officials declined to respond to questions about the dismissals and the extent of Gulen’s influence within the police, saying they can’t discuss administrative decisions.
“This country’s police, prosecutors and judges are receiving orders from somewhere else,” Erdogan said Feb. 15. “Wherever they are hiding in, we will find, expose and hold this parallel structure accountable in front of the nation.”
The head of the country’s biggest business group warned last month that the power struggle will undermine the economy. The government’s efforts to strengthen its grip on key institutions of the state are “disturbing,” Muharrem Yilmaz said. “It’s not possible to attract foreign investment to a country where the rule of law is ignored” and “the judicial mechanism is not working in line with EU norms.”
Erdogan responded by accusing Yilmaz of betraying his country.
An independent adviser to the police, who also asked not to be identified, said thousands more officers in the 260,000-strong police force are likely to be reassigned by the end of the summer. He tapped his mobile phone to show a list of alleged Gulenist officers, and said he had shared that information with pro-government police inspectors.
The police purge has “inhibited the ability of Gulenists to engage in corruption probes and arrests,” Skinner said. “Erdogan has the upper hand at the moment.”
Erdogan has expanded the battle to the Internet. On Feb. 11 he accused parts of the police and judiciary of undermining his government with illegal wiretapping records leaked on the Internet. Vowing to end online “bullying,” he has pushed through legislation that allows authorities to block content deemed to be violating personal privacy without a court order.
Gulen’s followers increased their sway in the police after Erdogan’s party came to power in 2002. Students in Gulen-linked schools would be given advance knowledge of the questions in police college exams, according to the senior police official. Some cadets were sent to universities in the U.S. to help them advance, while others kept a low profile until they were appointed to key posts, he said.
The affiliations of officers are widely known, especially in small units, and secular and nationalist officers previously pushed aside by Gulenists are now making a comeback, he said.
Erdogan also replaced some members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which makes judicial appointments. Lawmakers on Feb. 14 voted to hand control of the board to Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, ignoring objections by the opposition Republican People’s Party, which escalated into a fist fight on the floor of the chamber.
A month earlier, when the purge was in its early stages, the EU expressed reservations. “These developments could weaken investigations in progress and the capacity of the legal system and the police to conduct independent investigations,” European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said on Jan. 8, calling on Turkey to respect EU entry criteria including the rule of law.
The comments reflect the shift in EU concerns about Turkey since it was officially accepted as a membership candidate in 1999. High on the EU’s to-do list at that time was reducing the political influence of the army and placing it under civilian control. Erdogan, with an assist from Gulen, has achieved that - - only to face questions from Brussels about whether his government now dominates too many areas of Turkish life.
“The police and judiciary mechanisms have seriously collapsed,” said Gokhan Bacik, a political scientist at Ipek University in Ankara. Erdogan’s crackdown brings into question “not only the legitimacy of such dismissals but also the supremacy of the rule of law in the country.”
Erdogan said on Jan. 29 that he also plans to prevent prosecutors from issuing arrest orders without approval of government-appointed governors.
“The government has moved to put the police and judiciary under its control” to block the graft probe, said Hasan Oren, a lawmaker from the Republican People’s Party.
Erdogan, who faces three elections in the next two years, has accused the Gulen movement of seeking to weaken his Justice and Development Party before those votes. The first test of that will be during local elections on March 30.
“If the people make us the number one party, it means this government is honest,” Erdogan said on Feb. 4.
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