Turkey’s left-wing Taraf newspaper has not finished leaking secret documents capable of inciting crises, bringing down political coalitions, and launching new areas of friction between politicians and military officials in Turkey.
The newspaper had initially led to the way in printing hundreds of secret official documents that led to the uncovering of the Sledgehammer coup plot, Ergenekon conspiracy, and the trial and imprisonment of dozens of military figures who were implicated in coup attempts against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. However this time Taraf has got its hands on something that could lead to deterioration in relations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual father of the Gülen Movement, over the issue of private schools. Tens of thousands of Turkish youth attend private schools affiliated to the Gülen Movement, and this has become an important source of revenue for the movement’s commercial and educational projects.
Taraf newspaper has published documents revealing that in 2004, the Erdoğan government coordinated with the military, signing a National Security Council action plan to disband the Gülen Movement as part of a broader move to defend secularism in Turkey and weaken the hold of religious movements. The AKP leadership accepted this move, but has lately sought to defend itself following the leak by saying that it never implemented this order, and in fact is responsible for creating the political and social climate that has allowed the Gülen Movement to flourish inside and outside Turkey. This, the AKP adds, also contributed to the halting of the attempts—both by the hardline secularists and Kemalists—to put Fethullah Gülen on trial and imprison him.
Gülen leads the Nur Movement, which considers itself to be an Islamic, intellectual and service-based movement that is completely removed from politics. However, this movement has always been at the heart of the Turkish balancing act, which has led some to label it the third most powerful group in Turkey after the AKP and the military. Due to the tension between Erdoğan and Gülen, the movement today is facing its first public test of its popularity and influence. This test will demonstrate its ability to influence the success or failure of the AKP in local elections scheduled for March 2014. The Gülen Movement will certainly try to implement this if it is unable to convince Erdoğan to retreat from his decision to reform the movement’s private schools, which number in the hundreds.
Fethullah Gülen, who spent 14 years in exile in the US, is angry this time. It appears that this will become a bone-breaking battle that will form a new map of political coalitions in Turkey and a roadblock that will not only hinder Erdoğan’s dream of becoming president in two years’ time, but will also lead to a retreat in the AKP’s share of the vote at forthcoming local and general elections. It now appears that the AKP’s chances of holding on to power are increasingly slim, particularly given the number of political rivals that will seek to compete with the ruling party, including a number of formidable coalitions and alliances. Erdoğan has the option of forming a temporary alliance with the Gülen Movement or seeking to disband the organization—either way, Turkey looks like it is going to endure another round of political games and shifting alliances, a phenomenon that the country suffered from for years.
Nobody in either camp—the AKP or the Gülen Movement—is listening to the few voices calling for calm and reason and warning against throwing away all the efforts that have been exerted over more than a decade. This includes warnings that the divergence in views and positions could spill over into each group’s popular bases, potentially threatening everything that has been built over the past decade, whether socially, politically or constitutionally.
Publicly, the issue between AKP and the Gülen Movement arose as a result of a number of issues. This includes Erdoğan and his government’s dealing with the Freedom Flotilla, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan’s dealing with the Kurdish issue in Turkey, preparations for a new Turkish constitution reaching a dead end, the trial of military officers on charges of seeking to overthrow the government, and the AKP’s dealing with both the Syrian and Egyptian crises. However, many believe that Gülen has also taken into account the ongoing retreat of the AKP’s popularity and the size of the crises that it is facing. As a result, Gülen could be seeking to pre-empt events by halting its partnership with Erdoğan and his party.
However, many others believe that the reason for this latest deterioration in relations is the AKP’s concern about the expanding influence of the Gülen Movement, to the point that this could even threaten the ruling party’s position and status. This AKP–Gülen partnership was destined to come to an end, particularly as the issues and circumstances that had brought them together are no longer in place. Partnership and cooperation is no longer necessary for either, as was the case just one decade ago, when the two were being confronted by an alliance of hardline secularists and Kemalist hawks not just in the military, but also in the judiciary and higher education. The Gülen Movement is well aware that the decision to distance itself from the AKP could lead to a decline in its projects and presence. However, they did not hesitate to take this decision when it became clear that it conflicts with the movement’s own interests and policies. In fact, the Gülen Movement has taken similar hard political decisions throughout its history, particularly in terms of its own support for political parties and figures.
Erdoğan and his aides also appear to be making final decisions in order to ensure that they remain at the top of the political ladder, even if this requires them to abandon the Gülen Movement. However, will they succeed in securing an alternative partner to offset the loss of this strategically important alliance?
Some are saying that an alternative partner for the AKP has already been in place in months, namely an alliance with the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in southern Turkey. However, the AKP have rejected such allegations, saying that it will make any such electoral calculations based on grassroots support.
It seems clear that Erdoğan will not back down or give up; he is remaining stubbornly persistent over the issue of private schools. He will not proffer an olive branch, even if this costs him a place at the negotiating table to discuss ways of calming down the crisis between the AKP and the Gülen Movement. This is an alliance that has for long years drunk from the same wellspring of support, and so we must ask who will prevail in the end.