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'Turkey’s Erdogan has let power go to his head'

© AFP

Text by Anne-Diandra LOUARN

Latest update : 2013-12-26

Are Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s days in power numbered? Having survived a sweltering summer of protests largely unscathed, Turkey’s prime minister is once again feeling the heat.

After a decade in power, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is now mired in an unprecedented corruption scandal that has led to the resignations of three ministers. Hoping to stop the rot, Erdogan responded with a sweeping cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, but many are now clamouring for his head. FRANCE 24 asked Turkey specialist Ali Kazancigli to explain the current political crisis and assess Erdogan’s prospects in next year’s elections.

FRANCE 24: Just how big is the scandal rattling Turkey’s government?

Ali Kazancigli: It’s absolutely huge. In Turkey we’ve never seen such a scandal go public before. It’s all the more sensational when you consider that Erdogan’s party won the 2002 elections in part thanks to its uncompromising stance on corruption and its criticism of rival parties’ sleazy politics. Anti-corruption is in the AKP party’s DNA: in Turkish, AK means ‘clean, honest’.

How are the Turkish people reacting to the scandal?

Coming as it does in the wake of the Istanbul protests in June, this vast anti-corruption sweep is an encouraging sign to many Turks. It proves that the country’s judicial system can count on honest judges and prosecutors. Moreover, there is an almost Freudian dimension to the current situation: the people of Turkey have, in a way, killed Erdogan’s hopes of becoming a new father to the nation, in the footsteps of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [the revered founder and first president of modern-day Turkey]. The population is now more emancipated, more individualistic. Ironically, this is largely a result of Erdogan’s own policies.

Do you think Erdogan will heed the outgoing environment minister’s advice and resign?

After a decade at the government’s helm, Erdogan is veering off track. He has let power go to his head. Over the past three years, we have witnessed a steady slide towards authoritarian rule. But this latest scandal has thrown him off balance. He has denounced an international conspiracy, but nobody believes him.

His health is another cause for concern. The 59-year-old has undergone surgery twice [Erdogan had an intestinal operation in late 2011] and rumours abound that he is battling cancer. Still, he remains very popular, particularly among working class households. One mustn’t forget he has steered the country through a decade of spectacular economic growth. He is hoping that popularity will carry him all the way to the presidency in 2014. As for his party, it is unlikely to repeat its phenomenal success in 2011, when it scooped some 50% of the vote, but it remains a strong contender for next year’s parliamentary polls.

Erdogan is no longer hiding his presidential ambitions. Why is he eyeing a post that has little real power in Turkey?

The fact that next year’s presidential election will be the first by universal suffrage has given the contest an unprecedented significance. Erdogan has also repeatedly tried to give more powers to the presidency, to no avail. But if he wishes to remain a key player on the political stage, he has no other choice than to aim for the presidency or a mayoral post in a major city. In Turkey, prime ministers and MPs can only serve three terms, and Erdogan has done both.

However, while Erdogan is no doubt popular, the current president, Abdullah Gül, is even more so. A more moderate, thoughtful and pro-European politician, Gül has the edge over his prime minister in every opinion poll.

Turkey’s prime minister has blamed the scandal on an Islamist movement led by Imam Fethullah Gülen. How influential is this former ally of the AKP?

Throughout much of Erdogan’s three terms in office, Gülen’s followers were staunch supporters of the AKP. But relations between the two have deteriorated rapidly in recent years. Fetullah Gülen lives in exile in the US, but his movement is hugely wealthy and influential in Turkey. It is widely believed that they have a foothold in every sphere of power, particularly the police and the judiciary. Their values are conservative, but politically they are more liberal. This is why they have openly denounced Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent. In particular, they are incensed by the prime minister’s decision to shut down a network of private schools that is one of their main sources of funding. Given the weakness of Turkey’s parliamentary opposition, Gülen’s followers are likely to play a major role in next year’s elections.
 

Date created : 2013-12-26

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