Turkey’s parallel state strikes back

Democracy cannot flourish in Turkey if Gulen Movement’s parallel structure is not dismantled.

The corruption probe in Turkey is really a power struggle between PM Ergodan and religious leader Fethullah Gulen [AFP]

“Parallel state”, “deep state”, and “parallel structure” are terms all too familiar to the Turkish public. This dual state structure was developed after the 1960 coup and further strengthened by the 1982 constitution. The division is composed of two components: The first is the elected, accountable, visible and civilian government; while the second,  an unelected, unaccountable and invisible structure embedded in high bureaucracy with affiliates in media and big business.

Civilian governments have always been subordinate to this shady parallel structure, which has dictated the main agenda of the country and has the authority to have the last word on major issues. The democratisation process of the last decade with an active struggle against the tutelage system, was believed to have freed civilian politics from the chains of this parallel state.

Yet, the nature of recent developments in Turkey that culminated in the sensational graft probe of scores of people, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, a mayor from the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), businessmen and the general manager of a public bank, Halk Bank, illustrates that old habits die hard in Turkey. In the last decade, while Turkey was busy dismantling the old parallel system, it seems that a new parallel system was emerging simultaneously.

The graft probe has two dimensions: judicial and political. While focusing only on the judicial aspect will culminate in losing sight of the bigger picture – political engineering; a sole focus on the political dimension will result in overlooking corruption, causing a loss of public trust in the government and tarnishing Turkey’s reputation.

Judicial aspect 

Turkey has taken significant strides over the last decade in the direction of transparency and accountability. According to the Berlin-based Transparency International, which ranks countries based on their degree of transparency, accountability and fight against corruption, Turkey went from ranking 64 out of 102 countries in 2002, to 53 out of 177 countries in 2013. This upward mobility in the level of transparency and fight against corruption helped Turkey attract more foreign investment and increased investors’ confidence in Turkey’s public administration.

In order to continue with the upward mobility, the government should make sure that the judicial aspect of the probe is being duly conducted, and investors’ confidence and public conscience are satisfied. Any wrongdoers need to bear the consequences of their actions irrespective of their positions and political prominence. In this regard, last week’s replacement of three cabinet ministers, whose sons were detained as part of the probe, was a move in the right direction.

That said, however, focusing solely on the judicial aspect of the case or treating it as Turkey’s “clean hand” operation is tantamount to losing sight of the bigger picture. The graft probe is the latest altercation in a row that has been going on for the last couple of years between the Gulen Movement, a religious group headed by Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who has been residing in the US since 1999, and the governing AK Party (AKP). While the context in which this probe is taking place points to the “political” nature of the investigation, the way in which the investigation has been conducted reveals the existence of a “parallel state” in Turkey.

Inside Story – Turkey fraud probe: Tip of the iceberg?

Political aspect 

The series of events that culminated in the sensational graft probe mainly started with the debate over the closure of private tutoring schools. On different occasions, the AKP expressed its visions of transforming Turkey’s private tutoring system, believing that it puts unnecessary pressure on pupils and financial burdens on families in its current form.

Yet this vision hadn’t been delivered until November 2013, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the minister of education said that the government was working on a draft proposal for transforming/closing down that school system in earnest. Owning a quarter of all private tutoring schools in Turkey, the Gulen Movement regarded this move as an attempt to deal a fatal blow to the organisation, as  these prep schools provide its main source of revenue and recruits. As such, it voiced strong objection to this initiative and pursued a multi-pronged campaign to stifle it. 

First, it utilised its vast media presence to dissuade the government from going forward with the initiative, to no avail. Then, the Movement leaked classified documents from the National Security Council Meeting in 2004 to the media, in which the government supposedly bowed to military pressure to terminate the Movement. Yet this claim was in contradiction with the reality on the ground. The movement had grown exponentially since 2004. The AKP era has been described as being the Movement’s most comfortable period.          

In tandem, Gulenists commenced a social media campaign against the government. Threats of leaking government officials’ or pro-government public personalities’ sex tapes to the media went hand in hand with other types of blackmail. Several tapes, irrespective of whether they were genuine or photo-shopped, have indeed been leaked through YouTube.

Attempts to affect politics through leaking video tapes or other forms of blackmail isn’t new in Turkish politics. In 2011, tapes of 10 high ranking officials of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were leaked to the public, resulting in the resignation of many. In response, the leader of the MHP explicitly blamed the Movement for the leaks.

The sensational graft probe of December 17 emerged from such a background.

The probe merged three separate and unrelated cases into a single file. These cases range from conducting “illegal gold transactions with Iran” to construction-sector-related corruption cases and bribery. In addition, despite the fact that the necessary evidence had been collected almost six months prior [Tr], the prosecutors waited until December to launch the investigation.

Yet, this does not mean that the political aspect of the case should be overlooked and the existence of an autonomous group within the state bureaucracy dismissed. The existence of such a group poses great danger to civilian politics and democracy.

The timing confirmed the suspicions of many people that this case was brought on to effect the local elections, scheduled for March, in order to inflict more damage to the AKP. The prevalent view among the wide spectrum of commentators in Turkey is that this probe is not a “clean hands operation”; rather, it is a political vendetta by the Movement against the government.

Gulenist parallel state

The nature and method of this graft probe, and the historical context of the row between the two sides, illustrates the existence of an autonomous group (Gulenists) within the bureaucracy, especially in the police and judiciary. This is not the first time that the Movement has used its followers to pressure or “tame” the government.

In February 2012, Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, was summoned to court for conducting secret negotiations with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish issue. He had been given the task by Erdogan and the Movement was believed to have been behind the summons. Moreover, pro-Kurdish politicians [Tr] on many occasions have accused the Movement of being behind the mass arrest of Kurdish politicians and activists due to the Movement’s hawkish stance on the Kurdish issue.

Furthermore, the latest investigation was supposedly conducted in complete secrecy. The officials in charge of the files had not even informed their superiors about the probe: The newly discharged Istanbul’s Chief of Police, Huseyin Capkin, had not been informed about the probe at all.

Yet, two Gulenist journalists were able to tweet the details of the probe months ago. The first one is a former police officer turned columnist [Tr], and the second one made a name for himself by leaking the classified documents to the public.

Likewise, in preparation for a second graft investigation, the dispute between Chief Public Prosecutor Turan Colakkadi and the head prosecutor of the second case, Muammer Akkas, further gives credence to the view that Gulenists within the state prioritise their group identity and interests over the public’s interest and their official responsibilities. When the content of the “confidential” probe was leaked to the media by the head prosecutor, Colakkadi held a press conference (Tr) to account for the irregularities and illegalities of the public servants’ actions within his jurisdiction. Colakkadi said that despite requesting information from the head prosecutor, he was not given any. Yet, the next day, all the details of the case were leaked to the media by the head prosecutor. 

Turkey’s graft probe is a politically-motivated case, but it still needs to be duly and convincingly investigated. Anyone proved guilty of corruption should bear the consequences regardless of their position and prominence. This is a sine qua non for a sense of justice to prevail in society.

Yet, this does not mean that the political aspect of the case should be overlooked and the existence of an autonomous group within the state bureaucracy dismissed. The existence of such a group poses great danger to civilian politics and democracy. At this juncture, the government needs to undertake two cleaning operations in tandem. First, it should get rid of anyone who is convicted in these cases, and continue on the path of transparency and accountability. Second, it needs to deconstruct the “parallel structure” that has been developed by the Movement, in order to have a tutelary free democracy and strong civilian politics.

Galip Dalay works in the political research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey. He is book review editor of Insight Turkey journal and currently a PhD candidate in International Relations at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara.

Follow him on twitter: @GalipDalay