Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the charismatic leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister of Turkey, is embroiled in a significant graft scandal that might precipitate the end of his rule, writes Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Erdoğan’s leadership is contested these days as never before, says Inbar, and it is not clear yet how he and his Islamist AKP party will come out of the current political crisis. "The secularists in Turkey now have a chance to further erode Erdoğan’s popularity,” and the more conservative secular elements on the Turkish political spectrum might build an alliance with the influential Fetullah Gülen movement to remove Erdoğan, he speculates.
According to Inbar, a rift has developed between the AKP and the Gülen movement, whose members are are “seemingly modern Islamists and an important component of the AKP.” They have become increasingly uncomfortable with Erdoğan’s policies. For example, “they were not happy with Turkey’s new foreign policy, with Israeli-Turkish tensions, and with Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They also criticized Erdoğan’s clumsy treatment of the Gezi Park affair,” he said, referring to popular demonstrations against Erdogan's government last summer.
Gülen’s media outlet, Zaman, the largest newspaper in Turkey, has become openly critical of Erdoğan. The police and the judiciary, largely under the influence of Gülen, were responsible for the recent arrests of several Erdoğan’s protégés under charges of corruption. Erdoğan executed a major reshuffling of his cabinet in an attempt to distance himself from the corruption scandal.
Municipal elections scheduled for March 2014 will be the first serious test of the extent of the political damage to Erdoğan, followed by presidential elections in June.
Under Erdoğan, explains Inbar, “Turkey gradually adopted policies that amounted to a wholesale attempt to Islamize the country: putting restrictions on the sale of alcohol, enhancing the status of religious schools, encouraging the establishment of Muslim-oriented institutions of learning, and nominating Islamists to sensitive positions in the public sector.”
Many Turks started complaining about the government's growing authoritarianism. This was particularly felt in the Turkish media that was subject to intimidation, takeover attempts, and jailing of journalists. The business community “felt informal pressure to conform to Muslim mores” and the banking system was similarly “subject to infiltration by government-sponsored Islamists.”
Erdoğan’s authoritarian streak and strains on the economy will be issues in the upcoming election campaigns, estimates Inbar.