What’s Behind the Fight Between Erdogan and Gulen Movement

Turkey is shaken by a new political crisis. Ministers made resigned, sons of ministers imprisoned, state mechanism fragmented, disaccord between the government, judiciary and law enforcement, curses soaring from TV screens and public meetings, millions of dollars hidden in shoe boxes at homes, international money laundering traffic, Iranian connections, pro-government newspapers with stunning headlines saying “get off” to the US ambassador, etc. All this indicate a big political war in progress.

The course of events started with an investigation of corruption and quickly developed into a kind of state crisis. Thousands of police officers were hastily shifted to ineffective positions amounting to large scale liquidation. In the following weeks these kinds of large scale shifts spread to other state branches, such as judiciary, ministry of education etc.

While these developments are a cut-throat power struggle between the government and Gulen movement as widely portrayed by the press we must clearly state from the very beginning that the matter cannot be reduced to that.

The question of corruption

During the AKP rule for the last 12 years Turkish capitalism has scored a fast growth during which nature and labour force have been exploited and plundered immeasurably. Although this amounted to a leap forward to a new level of capital accumulation, during this period, besides ordinary bribery and corruption we have seen more subtle ways of corruption fitted into legal framework by amending laws and regulations. Especially by amendments to public bids law and regulations nullifying state audit court made any substantial inspection and audit either impossible or ineffective. What leaked since 17 December is just the tip of the iceberg of corruption that AKP is involved in and even this sufficed to shake the political stage. There have been extensive media disclosures of the cases of corruption so that it is useless to dwell on them here. As a matter of fact, all toilers, even those who voted for AKP, are aware of this fact to some extent.

What we need to do is to remember some basic facts. Bribery, corruption, and irregularities are just natural phenomenon under capitalism, the decaying capitalism in particular. Although there might be certain differences of ways and scope, this is basically the case even in most developed and “regular” capitalist countries. In Germany which seems to be a symbol of rule and order, the head of state, the president, had to resign because of corruption. It was just a year ago. One can also remember the Enron scandal in the USA under Bush administration. Disclosure of such cases is thanks to either they have grown into such big dimensions that it is impossible to conceal and pose a risk for the whole system or that sometimes some politicians and parties had to be wiped away from the political scene.

Corruption always exists in capitalism and this surely serves as a lever in exposing capitalism in the context of the working class struggle. However it must be kept in mind that any condemnation of corruption based not on a revolutionary exposition of capitalism feeds illusions over so-called virtues of a “decent” capitalism. And the winning party will always be the capitalist order. Bad boys are condemned, scapegoated and, if possible, liquidated, through which the system is given a “cleaning.” One must also never forget that corruption issues are used as a trap typically employed in struggles among the ruling classes. When a section of the rulers intends to liquidate or undermine another section, among most popular tools are disclosure of private lives and corruption issues. The allegations involved are almost always true, but this is not the point. Masses are generally misled twofold in such operations. While the discredited order is cleaned and given a fresh restart, a public support is gathered against those “bad” elements of the order to liquidate them.

Beneath the current corruption investigations lies a similar kind of political operation. Gulenists, Kemalists, bulk of the left and liberals choose to present the matter largely as a corruption issue. There are mainly two opposing propaganda sides. While on the one hand the masses are filled with the propaganda that paints a picture of Erdogan and co. swelling their pockets, on the other hand, the other side, Erdogan and his co., try to paint themselves as innocent and victim. Yet what came out in these corruption revelations constitutes only one side of the truth. It could only be conscious blindness if not naivety not to see this. Allegations of corruption are certainly true. But if we want to understand the essence of matter we have to go deeper. The question to be asked is why the coalition between AKP and the Gulen movement has ended and the Gulen movement initiated the operation with the aim of putting an end to Erdogan’s political career.

Power struggle between Gulenists and Erdogan

Another aspect of the matter apart from corruption issues is, as widely covered by the media, the power struggle between Gulenists and Erdoganists. This side of the issue was addressed in the previous issue of Marksist Tutum.

Gulenists who have been following a long-term organising strategy of infiltrating into the state gained an enormous following in judiciary and police in recent years. And, without having such a level of cadres within the state apparatus, the AKP in its struggle against pro-status quo Kemalist cadres who occupied critical positions in the state inevitably formed a coalition with Gulenists. This was first of all a life and death struggle. When the Kemalist forces of the past initiated their efforts to get rid of AKP by the usual ways they are accustomed to, AKP, in response, could fight back thanks to its alliance with Gulenists. Gulenists played a major role in that power struggle. Passing from various stages, this struggle essentially came to an end by the referendum in 2010. And the elections in 2011 that followed meant the beginning of a new period.

But after the victory against pro-status quo Kemalist forces there inevitably emerged conflicts between the winners about how to share the spoils. The influence of Gulenists within the state has surely not been something welcomed by Erdogan and his co. Such an organisation which is not under AKP’s own control might well undermine it some day. Moreover this organisation demanded a much greater share in the aftermath of the victory.

It was obvious that, having defeated the Kemalist forces, a more ambitious Erdogan, with a renewed sense of omnipotence and self-confidence, could not bear this situation infinitely. Although the AKP represents a coalition since its beginning and Gulenists were part of this coalition, political hegemony has always been in the hands of Erdogan and his co. Moreover, with time, this hegemony has been consolidated through waves of various shifts and liquidations within the state apparatus.

Under these circumstances, a settling of accounts with Gulenists was inevitable in the next stage of Erdogan’s victory parade. While all other groups in AKP bowed down to Erdogan’s hegemony, Gulenists that has come from a completely different route and stood on an independent ground have never been in such a position. Let alone bowing down, Gulenists apparently made high-handed demands. Apparently, the demands made for more positions in the army and national intelligence service in particular were not welcomed by Erdogan.

In short, it was, and is, no secret that there has been a power struggle between these two powers. There have been tensions in different stages, manifested in certain ways. Up to a certain point these tensions were accommodated and brought to reconciliation. But that point was reached and the Rubicon was crossed. And we are now on a new level with investigations of corruption and the government attempt to abolish private teaching institutions which are the strongholds of Gulenists to educate their reserve armies of cadres. Yet, having developed into a state crisis these developments can never be viewed as mere power struggle. In fact this power struggle fits into a greater context and finds its real meaning.

Sub-imperialist Turkey and Erdogan’s disproportionate ambitions

The question of corruption and the power struggle between Gulenists and Erdoganists do not constitute the whole truth. If we go deeper we will come across with the fact that the capitalist development in Turkey has attained to the level of sub-imperialism and that the question of through what kind of policies this stage is to be materialised on an international level. The truth is that on the basis of Turkey’s rapid capitalist development Erdogan and his co. increasingly followed a more ambitious and risky path on foreign policy as he gets more self-confident. While Kemalist sections were liquidated causing a historical break inside, the framework of international balances were pushed to the limits outside.

And what would be the place of a sub-imperialist Turkey, with its 17th biggest economy of the world, membership of G20, its international investments, in the region and within the international system? Would it be a sub-imperialist Turkey obediently following the U.S. policies in the region and getting its modest share, or a relatively more independent sub-imperialist Turkey with too much greed? That was the choice to make in front of Turkey.

The rising of Turkish capitalism to the stage of sub-imperialism coincided mostly with a political leader like Erdogan, which has brought forward the latter option, the more risky one. With his personal traits and ideological background, so called Milli Gorus (National View), Erdogan has been decisive in the choice of the more ambitious and risky road of Turkish sub-imperialism. Viewing himself in a magnifying mirror as progressing towards a leader of the region, of Muslim world, and a world leader, Erdogan seemed at first to be winning. But upon various issues conflicts with big imperialist powers and some other regional powers began to grow rapidly after a certain point. On many critical questions such as Iran, Palestine-Israel, Syria, Egypt, building nuclear power plants in Turkey and buying large weapon systems (such as missile shield), Erdogan and co. took unwelcome positions and choices, which amounted to pushing and eventually crossing the limits of the U.S. and the western imperialist powers in general. It should be added that the breaking up with Israel has constituted an important turning point in this.

To put it briefly, the political course pursued under Erdogan’s leadership has gone beyond the natural limits for a sub-imperialist power in the Middle East. And it is quite normal that a sub-imperialist power is punished when it crosses its limits and tries to challenge big imperialist powers. Although world capitalism is in a period of crisis and there could be certain changes in the balance of forces within the system according to the law of uneven and combined development, which on the whole creates a certain room for manoeuvre, there are limits to it. As a matter of fact, Erdogan, as the ambitious leader of a newly emerged sub-imperialist power, has pushed the limits of this room for manoeuvre and exhausted his credibility.

At the present moment big western imperialist powers, the U.S. in particular, majority of big capital groups of Turkish capitalism and Gulen movement are carrying out a political operation to reshape Turkish politics. The aim of this operation is to liquidate Erdogan, who is regarded as a pain in the ass, rather than destroying or liquidating the AKP. Of course, the gist of the problem is not his person but the political course he personifies. This politics represents a more independent and “adventurist” orientation, which surfaces on the question of what path to take for Turkish capitalism that has risen to the stage of sub-imperialism. Although all sections of capital agree on and are willing for getting imperialist, they disagree on by which policies and relations this level of development is realised, particularly from the standpoint of regional and world balance of forces. They are all pleased with the advantages of the new level of development. However the orientation of Erdogan and co. bringing along conflicts with big imperialist powers on some delicate matters has reached to a level which cannot be tolerated any more.

This is how Erdogan, who once was celebrated by the USA, turned into a pain in the ass. And the USA is not alone in this. European powers and Israel are not pleased with Erdogan either. The statement of the head of the Socialist caucus in European Parliament, Svoboda, is very significant. He said, “Perhaps Turkey needs another prime minister.” Statements of the U.S. ambassador in Ankara are also significant.

These foreign forces are joined by the westernist big capital circles inside. They bear a grudge against the AKP for they are under intense pressure from the government on top of their general discontent with the AKP’s “adventurist” foreign policy. This in fact represents a peculiar aspect of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. With his zeal to suppress all kinds of opposition, he puts pressure on many big capitalists in his quest for becoming a patriarchal president. However at the present stage it is not possible for Turkey, with all its contradictions, to stand this kind of authoritarianisation. This is both from the standpoint of capital and socially. A patriarchal president with TUSİAD capitalists in opposition to him will not be a sound ground. It is impossible that Erdogan’s moves to become “one man” and get rid of everyone around him but those “yes sir” people can be accepted except his crony capitalists.

It is obvious that Gulen movement, which represents another section of capital, has not accepted the one-manship of Erdogan either. Gulen movement’s line is surely more favoured by the U.S. compared to Erdogan’s. With their strategy which seeks full accord with the U.S. policies and highly educated cadres that are more deeply integrated into international capitalist system, Gulenists are much more acceptable as Islamist partners for the USA. Moreover, it is also an established fact that Gulen movement very long ago came into a more organic contact with the USA. And through an extensive organising work that has continued for many years they gained some key positions within the state with a massive accumulation of cadres.

Any real move against Erdogan within the framework of bourgeois politics has to be based on strong resting points within the state. For it has turned out that under present circumstances Erdogan cannot be defeated through regular political means, i.e. through elections and parliamentary mechanisms. This is the gist of corruption investigations. And Gulen’s network has played its role in the first episode.

A new episode

We have made it clear since the last months of 2013 that a new period of political battles would start. We said that Turkey’s contradictions inside and outside have accumulated seriously and in relation with that a new episode was opening on the eve of 2014 in which a series of critical elections would take place. And now we are witnessing the concrete developments of this.

The conflict we are witnessing nowadays has a far reaching objective ground. Therefore this cannot be considered a problem that can be overcome by a compromise between Gulenists and Erdoganists. For the gist of matter is to get rid of Erdogan and with him his ambitious policies. And this is about satisfying the wishes and desires of the major part of capital and big imperialist powers which go far beyond the wishes and desires of Gulenists. Without Erdogan being sent out in some way or another and without his particular policies being scrapped no one should expect a real end to this conflict. This is to determine the new position of sub-imperialist Turkey.

Now there are new political alternatives being prepared. President Abdullah Gul from the AKP side and Mustafa Sarıgul (candidate for Istanbul mayor) from the CHP (Republican People’s Party) side are the most prominent figures at present. It is also known that Gulenists support Sarıgul in Istanbul which is very significant. It appears that some major bourgeois forces are gathered to secure a considerable amount of vote for Sarıgul in Istanbul and ultimately make him win. And we can surely guess that until elections there will be many more leaks and scandals.

One of the consequences of these developments is that Islamist political cadres have lost their glamour, who have posed as examples of decency and integrity. Their prestige is being undermined in the eyes of broad toiling masses. They had had the advantage of being excluded from power in their effort to paint themselves as clean and victimised. Thus we are passing through a new phase in the political evolution of Turkey. After that we will be on a new ground where Islamists have already been tried.

One immediate consequence of this is that Erdogan’s dreams for a presidential or semi-presidential system are collapsed. Another formula he put forward in the form of “at least it could be a president with party affiliation” has also been dashed. And the only option left behind is to be a president with the existing powers given to a president constitutionally. But it is doubtful if this kind of presidency would satisfy Erdogan. Under these circumstances he might step up authoritarianism as he views himself under siege from all sides.

But the long-time problem of the working class still holds. 2014 will be a year of elections and the working class will once again be forced into similar polarisations outside its own class interests: tailing Sarıgul in the name of getting rid of Erdogan or rallying behind Erdogan. This trap needs to be avoided. All sides of this conflict are enemies of the working class and they all must be challenged. Moreover, we are living through a period in which the problem does not simply involve elections and important processes are in the making on a regional scale. We need to be prepared for much more complicated events on a greater scale.

Getting rid of this order in which exploitation, plunder, spoil, corruption, bribery, injustice have gone rampant, in which working masses are suffering in the grip of imperialist war and economic crisis will only be possible if the working class mounts the struggle on the basis of its own independent class politics. All bourgeois alternatives will serve nothing but accelerating the downward spiral.

(Source: Marksist Tutum, Ocak 2014, no: 106)