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Erdogan Purges Police At Risk Of Dismantling Turkish Democracy

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that a corruption investigation targeting some of his allies is a conspiracy.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said that a corruption investigation targeting some of his allies is a conspiracy.
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have declared war on his police force.

Over the past weeks, his administration has reached down into the ranks of the judiciary and police to remove hundreds of prosecutors and detectives from sensitive posts and reassign them to other duties.

The massive reshuffling, which is quashing a corruption investigation Erdogan says was launched to discredit the government, offers new fuel to critics who accuse him of turning ever more authoritarian after 11 years in office.

But Erdogan's ability to carry out the purge amid only modest public criticism also suggests there is little to stop him from continuing, even at the risk of seriously weakening some of democratic Turkey's key institutions.

The scale of the purge was underlined on January 7 when some 350 police officers were removed from their posts in Ankara. Local media reported those affected included the chiefs of the financial crimes, antismuggling, and organized-crime units. Many of those removed were reassigned to traffic departments or to police stations outside the capital.

On January 8, Turkey's Interior Ministry fired another 15 provincial police chiefs overnight, including in Ankara, Izmir, and Diyarbakir. Scores of other police and judicial officials, such as the chief of the Istanbul police, have been moved elsewhere since corruption investigators arrested dozens of people -- including the sons of three ministers and the chief executive of state-run Halkbank -- on December 17.

'Conspiracy' Eclipses Corruption

Erdogan has said that purging the law-enforcement agencies is necessary to protect Turkey against what he claims is a "state within a state" that has taken root inside them and, he has implied, is formed of followers of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen is the U.S.-based head of the international Hizmet (Service) movement, which operates educational and charitable networks in Turkey and elsewhere. He has denied that his followers, who allied with Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AK Party to bring Erdogan to power in 2003, have any involvement in the corruption inquiry.

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Still, Erdogan's talk of a seditious conspiracy has found enough traction to effectively eclipse the corruption investigation. And that despite the fact the investigation targets close Erdogan allies and involves alleged influence-peddling worth millions of dollars to enable Iran to evade some of the international financial sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.

Fadi Hakura, a Turkey specialist at London-based Chatham House, says one reason Erdogan appears to have succeeded so far is that Turkish public opinion has always been highly susceptible to talk of conspiracies.

"The Turkish public generally has a proclivity for conspiracies and a belief in shadowy groups," he says. "Turkish society is a very conservative society, the Turks have a tolerance and respect for authority and at the same time Turks have not successfully made the mental transition from a rural mentality in an urban setting. This explains why Turks tend to believe in conspiracy theories rather than in more mundane explanations."

But another reason Erdogan seems to feel few constraints is that he remains highly popular due to the country's economic performance. Turkey posted a high point of close to nine percent growth in 2010 and, despite projecting only 4 percent growth this year, is popularly perceived as prospering under his administration.

According to Hakura, for many Turks, economic success comes first, corruption charges second.

"If the economy is perceived positively by the Turkish public, then I think this anticorruption investigation will have a limited impact on Prime Minister Erdogan's popularity," he says. "But if the state of the economy is perceived negatively, then the anticorruption allegations will have added weight."

No Alternatives

But there are still other important factors that protect Erdogan with voters, and that is the absence of political alternatives to his centrist AK Party.

"He [Erdogan] is also in a very strong position internally, because when he came to power he presented the AK Party as a center-right, conservative party," says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based expert on Turkey with the U.S.-Swedish Silk Roads Studies Program. "And, of course, in the last few years in particular it's moved more toward the Islamic right. It's always been an Islamist party but its policies have now become very conservative and pro-Islamist. But there is a gap in the Turkish political spectrum where there is no center-right party and so, even if he loses some popularity, some credibility, voters have to jump quite a long way to go to another party."

The question now is how much Erdogan can tamper with government institutions before he exceeds Turkish voters' tolerance due to fears that he is dismantling the country's democracy.

So far, he has proven himself adept at assuaging such concerns, including most recently by offering an olive branch to some of the fiercest critics of his authoritarianism -- Turkey's secularists.

Erdogan suggested on January 5 that some military officers and other secularists may have been wrongly jailed in Turkey's sweeping coup-plot trials of the past decade and that, if there were abuses of justice, it was Gulen sympathizers within the judiciary who were responsible.

That offers the prospect that some of those jailed, including former armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug, could now be retried and possibly freed.

Erdogan's olive branch is likely to be well received by secularists, despite the fact that they know very well that the "state within a state" charges he now levels at his former Islamist allies, the Gulenists, is the same strategy he previously used against them.

Turkey's secularists are still smarting from the sweeping "Sledgehammer" and "Ergenekon" coup-plot trials which resulted in some 1,000 people being jailed on evidence that many rights groups questioned as insufficient or dubious.

The trials broke the political power of the military, which forced an earlier Islamist-led government from power in 1997 and has traditionally seen itself as the guarantor of the democratic, secular Turkey established by Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

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