April 7, 2014
A Time for Reform
By Bulent Aras
Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabancı University

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s A.K.P. government has come under fire as of late due to allegations of corruption. Though the A.K.P. seems to have weathered the storm by winning local elections, analyst Bulent Aras argues that more has to be done to ease the tension between the government and the people in Turkey.

A number of major political developments in Turkey have brought the country to a critical juncture.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) government has been hit by a series of major blows during its third term. Although the Gezi Park protests, which were sparked by plans for urban development in central Istanbul in May 2013, have been suppressed, the backlash against the government that started with Gezi has continued.

Erdoğan has stated several times that the “parallel state” is responsi- ble for leaking state secrets and will be subject to legal action.

In December, allegations of corruption brought Prime Minister Erdoğan’s cabinet and his acquaintances under suspicion. Erdoğan had to dismiss half of his council of ministers, and the party lost some of its members.

The corruption scandal has shaken the A.K.P. at a time of increasing domestic unrest, deadlock in the EU integration process, growing criticisms of foreign policy, and diminishing international legitimacy.

The situation has escalated into political warfare between the A.K.P. and the Hizmet (“Service”) movement, the followers of Fethullah Gülen and the strongest religious movement in Turkey. Erdoğan claims that a group within Hizmet has created a parallel state by utilizing its recruits within state institutions, and that it took refuge in the Hizmet movement to further its political ambitions. He accused this so-called parallel state of using the corruption scandal as cover for a coup against him.

Hizmet responded that corruption must be eradicated, and that the prime minister must prove his claims of a parallel state. Then, right before the March 30 local elections, Hizmet accused the A.K.P. government of pursuing a hidden agenda to incapacitate the movement, and said it considered the attempt to shut down private prep schools, a keystone of Hizmet’s domestic operations, to be part of this plan.

Despite these accusations, and the fact that Hizmet put all of its weight behind the political opposition, the elections on March 30 ended with a clear Erdoğan victory, giving him the upper hand in the political struggle.

Both sides are now questioning everything that the other has ever done, including all of their joint activities. This is the first time that the Hizmet movement’s presence within critical state institutions has been visible, at this level, to the public.

The A.K.P. is pursuing alliances with other religious groups, the state’s security elite, and other groups allegedly aggrieved by Hizmet. In turn, Hizmet has attempted an alliance with the Republican People’s Party (C.H.P.), but it did not prove effective against the A.K.P. government in the elections.

There has been a flurry of allegations and accusations, along with leaked documents and voice recordings. Erdoğan has stated several times that the “parallel state” is responsible for leaking state secrets and will be subject to legal action. All of this has resulted in a high level of political tension in Turkey.

Reducing the situation to a political tussle between two structures misses the significance of the crisis. Turkey’s rapid development and demands for democracy in recent years have given rise to a fault line between the state and the people. The approaching presidential elections, which will mean a considerable political change for Turkey (considering that Erdoğan is serving his last term in the Parliament and has designs on the presidency), have further aggravated the situation. Ultimately, the crisis has broken out in the form of a struggle between the A.K.P. and Hizmet.

Ultimately, the crisis has broken out in the form of a struggle between the A.K.P. and Hizmet.

There is a Turkish proverb that says there is goodness in what happens. The “goodness” here is that the crisis is forcing its own way out. There is an urgent need to ease the state–society tension, to reform the political system and administrative structures, to strengthen democratic institutions, and to enhance citizen participation in decision-making processes. Immediate measures guaranteeing different lifestyles, preserving diversity, ensuring freedom of speech and media, and creating room for individual and organized opposition would provide considerable relief.

In order for this to happen, Hizmet needs to rein in its operations, respecting the boundaries of a civilian movement, and the A.K.P. needs to set aside its hegemonic inclinations and pursue a policy of reform and democratization. The alternative is a protracted survival struggle for Hizmet, putting legitimacy and popular support into jeopardy for the A.K.P.

Interestingly, both sides see the reactivation of the EU integration process as an exit strategy, since it represents a road map for reform. They agree on the need to deal with Turkey’s problems through an innovative and problem-solving approach – ironically, while engaged in a struggle against each other.

The cycle of crisis and reform that has existed throughout Turkish history has been resurrected in the fight between these two institutions. As the recent election results proved, the A.K.P. has much of the political capacity needed to pursue a reformist agenda. On the other hand, Hizmet has considerable civic capacity, guaranteeing societal backing and control of political projections. The reasonable solution on the horizon is that both groups immediately take action for self-correction in response to the current crisis, and provide an impetus for the inclusive restructuring and recalibration of Turkish politics.

Bulent ArasBulent Aras served as director at Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Center for Strategic Research (SAM), while also serving as chairman at the Diplomacy Academy, between 2010 and 2013.