Body language is an important indicator, especially when the man under scrutiny is one of the most charismatic political leaders of Turkey, if not the Middle East. And Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a master of the art. He combines a deep, fatherly voice with excellent oratory skills and grand emotive gestures. Yet, as Turkish citizens watched him yesterday night (Wednesday, 25 December), presenting a new cabinet after deliberation with President Abdullah Gül, they saw a very different man: Shaky, peevish, reading out the names of his new ministers slowly, Erdoğan faltered, stopped, asked for a glass of water, before he continued. In more than ten years in power, this was the first time Erdoğan seemed to be lost for words.
What was it that shook this veritable man of power to the bones? An international conspiracy involving the US Ambassador, Israel, the 'rent lobby' and an Islamic network under the spiritual leadership of Fethullah Gülen Hocaefendi, also known as Hizmet, as his supporters would have it? Or the revelation that some of his most senior ministers were implicated in a corruption probe, whose leaks have been circulating widely in the news media over the last few days? Developments over the last week suggest the latter, even though elements of the former cannot be dismissed outright. Is Erdoğan and his new team of low-profile ministers fighting a 'new independence war' against internal and external enemies, as he suggested yesterday, or are we witnessing the gradual dissolution of an alliance that has governed Turkey for better or worse over the last thirteen years?
Investigations and leaks
On December 17, the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office launched a major graft investigation against leading figures close to the AKP, including the sons of the ministers of interior, economy, as well as environment and urban planning. The name of Egemen Bağış, Minister of EU Affairs, disliked by many of his counterparts in the European Union as well as by Turkey's dwindling pro-EU constituency, was also mentioned. As has become a worrying characteristic of the Turkish justice system during major probes against the former Kemalist establishment such as the Ergenekon and Bayoz trials, allegations of shocking corruption cases were leaked throughout the day. They ranged from the flouting of planning laws and dodgy sales deals of public lands to private investors close to Erdoğan, to the laundering of Iranian assets that are supposed to stay under lock due to the US and EU embargo against Iran. The next day, transcripts of the initial interrogations with the key suspects were published in all newspapers that have not yet been brought under full government control. Media outlets close to the Hizmet movement appeared to be particularly well informed.
As he did during the Gezi Park protests -against the AKP's increasingly authoritarian leadership and the rent-maximizing urban growth of Istanbul-, Erdoğan responded with a series of accusatory speeches, above all blaming the Hizmet movement for seeking to destroy his government. In a cloak-and-dagger operation, his government then dismissed almost all Police Chiefs involved in the investigations and altogether more than 300 members of the security forces. They were replaced with names close to the AKP. A new directive changed the framework of future investigations by making it mandatory to members of the judiciary and the police to inform the executive of impending probes, thereby turning any semblance of an independent judiciary into a farce. Yet despite all these measures, which also led to the resignation of a former Interior Minister from AKP membership, the government was not able to prevent the detention of the sons of Interior Minister Muammer Güler and Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan.
For more than a week the Prime Minister stood defiant against the allegations. He even embarked on a foreign visit to Pakistan, accompanied by the ministers in question. But the show of unity, which his cabinet showed upon his return to Ankara on December 24 was not to last long. The next day, three Ministers resigned. Two of them, Muammer Güler and Zafer Çağlayan published written statements -prepared by the Prime Minister's Office, as we now understand- in which they declared that they decided to step aside to ease the burden on the party and to help deciphering a 'dirty conspiracy' against them, their families and their country. The third resignation came from Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar. Bayraktar called the News channel NTV, one of the many outlets that have been facing increasing government meddling and censorship since the Gezi protests, and resigned on air. He insisted that all the real estate dealings and plan changes under investigation were initiated or approved of by the Prime Minister himself and that he, Bayraktar, would not sign the declaration put before him. Hence, he said, with a trembling voice, the Prime Minister should also resign.
When Erdoğan met President Abdullah Gül yesterday night to present the new cabinet, observers were expecting a brief meeting and a swift announcement. Yet the talks dragged on. Only after more than an hour did the Prime Minister emerge to present the new ministers. Few of the names that were circulating in the corridors of Parliament and in Ankara's centres of power were on the list. Nor was Erdoğan's very close confidant Egemen Bağış. Turkey's sure-footed Prime Minister had just announced, implicitly, that he had no choice but accept the consequences of the allegations brought against his closest colleagues. President Abdullah Gül, who is able to read both Turkey's political dynamics and its external relations with a sense of realism, might have helped.
The next act?
Erdoğan's shaky appearance after his meeting with the President may yet become the icon of his loss of power. But as the dust of last week's extraordinary events settles, and the build-up to the local elections in Mach 2014 intensifies, a few hard questions have to be asked. First of all, we see a Prime Minister, who has clearly passed his prime. We see a party that has been implicated in massive allegations of corruption. We may yet see more defections in the next few days. We also see a rather opaque power struggle between Turkey's two most important Islamist traditions, that of the Milli Görüş movement, from which most of the AKP inner cadres hail and the Hizmet movement, whose spiritual leader delivered a belligerent malediction to all those involved in corruption. And finally, we see a judiciary and police force, which may have been home to many sympathizers of Hizmet, being brought under government control to a point, where any independent investigation of those in power will become impossible. Evidence suggests that the newly appointed police chiefs are now undermining a second wave of investigations, which is thought to implicate Erdoğan's son Bilal. Where does this all leave Turkey?
What looked like a crisis of government seems to be transforming rapidly into a crisis of the state. How much power, how much space of maneuvre has the Prime Minister left to keep the country from spiraling down into chaos and authoritarianism? Not much, it seems. Without a way out of the current crisis, a re-election of the AKP looks much less likely now. The temptation of flouting the party's commendable statutes -no more than three terms in one office- may be too big. But even if Erdoğan uses this nuclear option, does he really stand a chance to be Turkey's first directly elected president? Probably not, particularly, since such a choice would require an even more repressive course of government action against public protest and even heavier curtailment of media freedoms.
Early elections may ease the tensions in the system and allow the Prime Minister to take back the initiative in order to prepare for the presidential and parilamentary elections. Yet, without a renewed commitment to democratic credentials, serious political reform and more realist relations with the world -above all the United States and the European Union, but also with the Arab world- Turkey's immediate future looks shaky. The economy and the wellbeing of the common man is at risk. In the end, the current power struggle calls into mind a Turkish proverb, which reflects centuries of folk wisdom formed in the face of Machiavellian politics: Where elephants trample, the grass is crushed.