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Erdogan’s Witch-Hunt Against The Gulen Movement and The Failure of Turkish Democracy

Dear Respectable Members of The Committee,

I was honored to be invited by the Conference Committee on Gulen Movement which will be held in Sao Paulo on May 19th. For some unexpected reasons, I am so sorry to inform you that I will not be able to attend the conference and take my seat among the distinguished speakers. I wish you have a stimulating and fruitful conference.

Yours Truly,
Aydogan Vatandas      

Erdogan’s Witch-Hunt Against The Gulen Movement and The Failure of Turkish Democracy and
By Aydoğan Vatandaş

When the AK Party took the office in 2002, many intellectuals in Turkey and abroad were convinced that the AK Party’s commitment to democratization was promising. The first term of the AK Party rule, which is considered as a golden era, broadly extends from 2002 to 2007. This era is characterized by high and inclusive economic growth, coupled with significant reforms on the democratization front, ranging from a radical reordering of civil-military relations to the recognition of minority rights, including the language and cultural rights to Kurdish citizens[1]. This initial high performance had created a certain level of trust towards the AK Party rule among the intellectuals of Turkey, including the Gulen Movement, that by time the AK Party would get rid of all the nondemocratic aspects of the Turkish governmental system[2]. Between 2009 and 2011 the AK Party government successfully managed to ensure the legal framework that would prevent military interventions that Turkey suffered in the past which sidelined Turkish military from politics.  But the end result was not a consolidated democracy as it was expected,[3] but a highly personalized autocracy embodied around the figure of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What went wrong with the AK Party and its leadership by means of democratization of Turkey still remains as an important question. Was the performance of the party between 2002 and 2007 an eye service, with Erdogan and his team waiting of a convenient time to apply their secret and real agenda? Were they never democratic at all? Or, did they change along the way? These are the questions, this paper will try to answer.

Resilience of Kemalist Institutions

It is argued that the failure of the assessment which suggested the AK Party rule would eventually lead to a consolidated democracy is deeply rooted with the traditional tutelage of Kemalist institutions over Turkish political system. Accordingly, regardless of their willingness or unwillingness to further democratize the country, the leadership of AK Party was trapped in the resilience of Kemalist institutions to change. A speaker of this thesis is İhsan Dağı, a liberal who gave support to AK Party led reforms in its golden era. Dağı notes that, together with himself, many people expected the defeat of Kemalist state establishment by a broad coalition of liberals, democrats and conservatives under the political leadership of the AK Party that would lead to a democratic regime with a liberal constitution. But, today, he observes ‘Kemalism is dead, but its state‐centric, Jacobin and illiberal sprit has been reincarnated in the AKP. The similarities in the attitude and the policies of the AKP and its Kemalist predecessors are striking. Using the state apparatus to construct “a new society,” trying to subordinate individuals and civil society to the state, employing the stateʹs coercive means to punish its opponents, viewing the world from the perspective of a siege mentality and describing the world as plotting against it; are common both to the AKP and its old rivals, the Kemalists[4].’

This observation gives credit to the ‘conversion thesis’ that claim, it wasn’t the original intentions of the AK Party that needed to be worried of, but the factory defaults of the Turkish regime that seduces any party that stays in power long enough into its authoritarian nature. What we are left with is a neo-Kemalist AK Party regime where the Kemalist heritage has been passed on to the AK Party, even though the military has been stripped of the undemocratic power that it used to enjoy in the name of Kemalism, Dağı says. He suggests that a new regime has been established, a mirror image of the old one, in which all power is monopolized by a single person, Erdogan, without any check and balance mechanism[5]. Dağı concludes that what we have at the end, therefore, is not a liberal democracy but a populist authoritarian regime that justifies its illiberal intrusions in the economy and society as well as in the lives of individuals by references to the vague notions of national will, values of “our nation and civilization” and “our historical mission[6].”

Strong State and Weak Society

The strong state and weak society dichotomy is also considered an important obstacle towards a consolidated democracy. It is argued that Turkey followed the path of secular modernization by prioritizing the creation of a strong homogenized nation led by the ruling political elite[7]. According to that argument, the Turkish system of governance has been formulated upon a framework of a strong state and a weak society which was also a major obstacle of a consolidated democracy. The government and the governed had a one-dimensioned relationship that oppressed the governed. As a result of this historical practice, the Turkish society has never been able to establish an autonomous sphere that free from the state[8]. This has made it hard to reconcile the different perspectives and interests of the different socio-political groups, despite the elimination of the military from the political system. While the political system seemed democratic, the state has also continuously denied the legitimacy of certain groups that threaten the centralized authority from the social stratification that give the elites control over the state. This resulted in the alienation and the polarization of the large segments of the society which yielded an institutionalized and authoritative Kemalist regime for decades. The suppression has also reduced the advocacy for democracy in the country, thus favoring autocratic governance. Lauren and Cop argued ‘that despite the EU's attempt to push Turkey towards full democracy in the modern day it was unlikely that it would become a fully functioning democracy unless it would manage to achieve civilian elite agreement regarding the rules of the Turkish democratic game, and that Turkey's experience with authoritarian rule may, in turn, have hindered the development of such rules’[9]. In sum, since the assertive secular modernization has never prioritized to empower the civil rights and civil society, the Turkish political system has always remained illiberal and undemocratic even after it started its multi-party system in 1946.

Erdogan fallacy

Many academics suggest that what Turkey gets from AK Party rule is what it should expect. Accordingly, it was a fundamental mistake to expect that the AK Party would promote Turkish democracy. Özkan argues that the AKP is a far-right party according to political science literature and that ‘assuming that the AKP would take Turkey forward was no different than thinking that Le Pen in France would advance democracy. When placed in the right-left spectrum, the AKP believes that it has a sacred mission and will remain in power forever. None of these are compatible with democracy. This extremism would emerge as racism in Europe, while it would become sectarianism in Turkey and would not consider other parties as representatives of the nation. The AKP is a model not for the Middle East but for the far right in Europe on how to instrumentalize democracy’[10].

The main reason that liberal intellectuals failed to see the Erdogan’s real ambitions was the very belief that the elimination of the military tutelage and other secular institutions such as  judiciary would be sufficient to lead a democracy. It did not. It was correct that these institutions failed to create a functional democracy in the past but it was wrong to believe that weakening these institutions would lead to the emergence of a democracy.  

It has to be stressed that it wasn’t only the Turkish liberals and religious democrats that were prey to the Erdogan fallacy. Even some leading international think-tank organizations failed to forecast the future of Turkish Democracy. For instance, in some future scenarios detailed by Rabasa and Larrabee for Rand Corporation in 2008, four possible scenarios in a sequence from the strongest to the weakest were produced: a) AKP pursues a moderate and EU-oriented path, b) AKP pursues a more aggressive Islamist agenda, c) Judicial closing of the JDP and d) Military intervention. For the authors, the backward from Turkish democracy was not even likely: ‘In this scenario, the reelected AKP government pursues a more aggressive Islamist agenda. With full control of the executive and legislative branches of government, the AKP is able to appoint administrators, judges, and university rectors and even to influence personnel decisions in the military[11].’ The authors concluded that this scenario is less likely because it would lead to greater political polarization and would likely provoke intervention by the military and second, most Turks support a secular state and oppose a state based on the shari’a and EU membership has been a core element of the AKP’s foreign policy[12].

Arato suggests that the liberal intellectuals understandably failed to see the logic of Erdogan’s actions, because of their own conflict with the military tutelage. They saw the Constitutional Court as merely an instrument of that tutelage, even though already in the 1970's the Court had its battles with the military-bureaucratic structures, though the Court made several decisions supporting the AK Party's positions (in 2007, e.g., the quorum decision was soon balanced by the one permitting the referendum on the presidency) and refused to dissolve the party in 2008, admittedly in a very close vote. They failed to understand that in the Turkish system, especially with the existence of a hegemonic party, the court and the judiciary were important counter-weights[13].

Anderson emphasized that the Erdogan’s main goal was to establish an executive power over the judiciary in a move that would violate the separation of powers. He further elaborated that AKP subjugated the state without oversight from other parties or branches of government. He suggested that as constitutional talks have broken down and no new draft is scheduled, any attempt to institutionalize a new system of government has met with failure adding that executive decrees and legislation indicate this regime’s authoritarian proclivities, which have precluded EU membership despite initial efforts to the contrary [14].

 According to Arato, while the leaders of the AK Party, along with many liberal intellectuals, continued to see the supreme court as an enemy and the 2010 referenda, represented an attempt to conquer branch of the separation of powers, the judiciary.  Arato contends that it was the more attractive provisions of the package as window dressing for a monolithic project and it actually aimed at a version of hyper presidentialism and sought to remove all impediments in its way, especially the judiciary that established its jurisdiction over constitutional amendments. It has now been more evident that more attempts are carried out to realize the same project, either by constitutional change or by the establishing of a de facto hyper-presidential system[15].

Government Corruption and Erdogan’s Witch-Hunt Against Gulen Movement

The corruption has, to some extent prevented the consolidation of democracy in AK Party era as well. When Erdogan came to power, during the first years of his rule, he honored democracy by advancing judicial independence and the rule of law by a series of amendments. However, when his inner circle and he himself was threatened with prosecution on corruption charges in late 2013, Erdogan’s government brought the courts back under the sway of the government through the introduction of the central administrative judiciary organ[16] which reduced government accountability. While the prosecutors who started the corruption probe were discharged, the police officers who applied the orders of the prosecutors were imprisoned. Erdogan has been able to effectively replace the rule of law with his own order.

It is no secret that the corruption scandal on December 17, 2013 that encircled the Turkish government was one of the biggest threats to Erdogan’s rule since he took the office in 2003.

Since then, Erdogan has been accusing Mr. Fethullah Gulen and his movement of conspiring against him through a corruption graft and vociferously claiming that the Gulen movement is a terrorist organization.

By using the state power and judiciary, Erdogan illegally has taken over banks, media organizations, schools and even private properties and companies that are assumed to be linked to the movement. During the witch hunt, more than two thousand people were detained and hundreds of them imprisoned.

The recent 77 pages long, ‘Turkey Human Rights Report‘ by the State Department shed light on this abuse of state power and Government witch hunt, emphasizing and documenting that Turkish authorities used the anti-terror laws to detain individuals and seize assets, including media companies, of individuals alleged to be associated with the Gulen movement.

While Erdogan is demonizing the Gulen movement in Turkey and operating a witch hunt against Gulen affiliated media groups, charities, schools, hospitals, banks and corporations, US President Obama sent significant clear message to the Gulen-inspired “International Festival of Language and Culture” that took place in Washington DC at the DAR Constitution Hall, Washington DC’s largest Concert Hall on April, 28, 2016.

Mr. Obama’s message was read by his special representative. Many in Washington believe that this is an important indication of the perception of the Obama administration about Erdogan’s witch-hunt against Gulen Movement.

 A particular area where corruption had its share of AK Party going anti-democratic is the control of the media. Erdogan governments had never been at ease with free media and critical voices in the media had always been rebuked by Erdogan. The situation get worse only after the 2013 graft allegations and the ensuing media coverage of the leaked phone calls between the prime minister and his family members and close associates. In turn, the AK Party government took a sophisticated strategy of silencing opposition media and social media. By limiting free speech, the government has reduced the ability of voters in Turkey to make free and informed decisions during elections. The law allowing the government to regulate the internet and block any content without judicial consent is a major setback towards civil liberties and democracy. Bilge, drawing upon analyses of laws and legislation, surveys, reports, and interviews with journalists, states that the recent developments demonstrate how press censorship in Turkey has been activated through a dispersed network of state power, commercial forces, and self-censorship[17]. 

While the AKP has increasingly assaulted the independent journalists and cracked down on its critics in the media, the constitution also provided profound powers to the Turkish leaders to gag the press and compromise on Turkish democracy. The press law has accelerated the transition of Erdogan’s government from a populist one to an authoritarian one. Turkey has a high number of journalists in prison. The Turkish media outlets are also biased and favor the reporters allied to government since Erdogan successfully created his own media (Havuz medyasi in Turkish) thus undermining the opinions of the opposition[18]. Furthermore the media under Erdogan’s control organizes smear campaigns and witch hunts against Erdogan’s opponents.  It is argued that one of the most important reasons for Erdoğan's consolidation of his power over the last decade is the fact that he has gradually taken possession of a good percentage of the Turkish media[19].

Charismatization of Erdogan and the re-construction of the political system.

Besides all the systemic obstacles towards a consolidated democracy in Turkey, I would strongly suggest that Erdogan’s personality traits and leadership style has also played a crucial role on the transformation of the political system in Turkey. Görener and Ucal, using the Leadership Trait Analysis designed by Margaret Hermann as a research tool, examined Erdogan’s rhetoric to analyze the leadership style of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The research concludes that Erdogan’s convictions ‘are so tightly held and preferences fixed, and that he tends to see only what he wants to see, renders him incapable of deciphering the nuances of diplomacy and successfully navigating the tricky waters of international affairs.’  The research also reveals that ‘his dichotomizing tendency predisposes him to view politics as a struggle between right and wrong, just and unjust, villains and victims[20].’ The research points out that Erdogan’s pattern of scores indicated that ‘he has an “evangelist” orientation to politics which is the leadership style that results from a combination of the tendency to challenge constraints in the environment, closedness to information and having a relationship focus[21].’

Arik and Yavuz state that Erdogan has the qualities of a charismatic leader[22]. However, this does not necessarily mean good news for Turkish democracy. Historical data shows that authoritarian tendencies, coupled with a charismatic personality most likely give way to dictatorial rule. Lewis, for example, shows how charismatic leaders frequently aggravate their followers' frustrations and prejudices through the use of “polarized aggression”[23]. Pinto and Larsen contend that every fascist dictator had to possess some individual abilities that made them ‘extraordinary’. ‘They need followers to ‘understand’ or ‘appreciate’ and connect their qualities and there must be a situation or an event that which required these unusual abilities, or which could ‘call’ for the reconstruction of the regime in such a way as to allow the application of new solutions to problems[24].’

Idealization of 2023 Target

In several articles and speeches of both Davutuglu and Erdogan, both  leaders seem convinced that AKP’s initiatives would make Turkey a global actor as they approach 2023, the one-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Having considered the AKP’s opposition to the founding symbols to the Republic, which was established in 1923, the goal and the vision of 2023, is related to the re-production of the new identity of the state and the nation as well. Since the process of state building refers to the development of a political entity with rulers, institutions and citizens, 2023 vision of AKP is an important indicator to see how an ‘imagined future projection’ is being used to mobilize the nation and to reach the Grand Turkey again where a hundred years ago that grandiosity was lost. This should be considered not only a journey to an imagined future but also a journey to the past where the Turkish grandiose collective identity was lost. Examining the 2023 vision of the AKP, it is quite clear that commitment is to construct the Grand Turkey while the vision doesn’t promise anything about a strong society, civil rights or a consolidated democracy.      

Emphasizing Turkey’s strategic relations with the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central Asia through their rhetoric, the leaders mostly highlighted “that Turkey is the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire that once unified the Muslim world and therefore has the potential to become a ‘Muslim super power.’

When Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said his party “will never let Erdogan be president [in a presidential system], Fuat Özgür Çalapkulu, the head of a provincial branch of AKP responded stating that country should “get ready for the caliphate” of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When losing the majority in the parliament in June 8 elections, Erdogan himself accused of HDP for preventing ‘Turkey’s 2023 goal’. [25]  

The leader-follower relationship is not ‘a one way relation’ and both agents constitute each other. In other words, leaders cannot operate without followers.

For instance, some of Erdoğan's followers have called Erdogan ‘caliph’. In 2013, Atılgan Bayar, an advisor to the pro-government news station A Haber, wrote that he recognized Erdoğan as the caliph of the Muslim world and expressed his allegiance to him. Beyhan Demirci, a writer and follower of Erdoğan, also wrote that Erdoğan is the caliph and the shadow of God on Earth. Some of his followers have gone even further and said things like, “Since Erdoğan is the caliph, he has the right to use money earned through corruption for his political goals.”[26]

It is evident that many of his supporters see him as a caliph. A pro-AKP newspaper columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak said the Turkish President could become “caliph” of all Sunni Muslims in the world, if only Erdoğan could manage to fulfill his often-stated aim of shifting Turkey to a presidential system of governance. Erdogan never declined this kind of imputations.

According to Chang, malignant narcissism begins with a collective trauma, such as a national defeat, an economic crisis, or subjugation by another, often more powerful, group. This defeat leads the nation to question itself and its history, “resulting in a pervasive sense of insecurity and an uncertain and weak collective identity.” Chang argues that narcissistic nationalism “functions as ‘a leap into collective fantasy’ that enables threatened or anxious individuals to avoid the burden of thinking for themselves.”[27] For example, the humiliating results of the Treaty of Sevres, the abolishment of the Caliphate and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire left a broken and wounded Turkish nation in its wake and recalled and used by the AKP leadership as both rhetorical factors and a tool as compensation device during the last decade.   

It is important to keep in mind that Turkish state establishment had always a crucial role on shaping the society as a constituting agent. When the constituting role of the state was performed with a secular “world view” in the past,  “constituting role” over society seems that it has passed to AKP leadership and particularly to Erdogan, suggesting that the mission of the state is now to bring up a religious generation, which indicates that the “social engineering” of a “constituting state” is not ruled out as Tayyip Erdoğan clearly said; “the new constitution will be in harmony with the values of our nation.”[28]  

While Ataturk constituted himself as the savior of the nation as a semi-God, the secular state establishment acted accordingly. Erdogan and his bureaucracy seem convinced that they could achieve construct their own state, society and even myths.  Erdogan’s authoritarian charisma and narcissistic personality organization provide evidences that he would be willing to rule Turkey as the ‘ undisputable sole leader’  but not a democratic leader. Readily available data provides evidences that authoritarian charismatic leaders with narcissistic personality organization tend to be dictators. 

 I strongly would argue that Erdogan’s ‘2023 target’ was not formulated only to idealize his rule, but as the ‘call’ for this ‘reconstruction’ of the regime as well. Gulen Movement was only one of the obstacles on the way of his goals.


Despite elimination of the military tutelage from the political system during the AK Party era, Turkey has had several historical and structural shortcomings that have prevented Turkey from becoming a democratic state. Erdogan’s efforts to sideline the Turkish military from the Turkish political system did not aim to consolidate democracy, but to create an autocratic system according to his wishes. What, therefore, Turkey has been experiencing for years was the ‘charismatisation/Erdoganization’ of Turkish political institutions through the ‘idealization of 2023 target’, which damaged not only democratic institutions, but also led radical shifts in Turkish domestic and foreign policy. Due to the systemic obstacles towards the democracy, whatever would emerge in Turkey in near future, thus, will not be a consolidated democracy but the exchange of the power from one elite to another.  

[1] Öniş, Z. 2015. "Monopolizing the Centre: The AKP and the Uncertain Path of Turkish Democracy." International Spectator 50, no. 2: 22-41. Scopus®, EBSCOhost (accessed December 31, 2015).

[2] Taspinar, Omer. 2012. "Islamist Politics in Turkey: The New Model?" The Brookings Institution. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2012/04/24-turkey-new-model-taspinar.

[3] Satana, N. S. 2008. "Transformation of the Turkish Military and the Path to Democracy". Armed Forces & Society 34 (3): 357-388.

[4] Ibid, 5.

[5] Dagi, Ihsan. What Went Wrong. Phoenix, Istanbul. 2015.

[6] Ibid, 5.

[7] Bechev, Dimitar. 2015. "The Travail of Democracy in Turkey".  Retrieved from: http://www.ispionline.it/it/EBook/TURKEY_2014/TURKEY_Cap.1_EBOOK%20(2).pdf

[8] Çaylak, Adem. "Autocratic or democratic? A critical approach to civil society movements in Turkey." Journal of Economic and Social Research 10, no. 1 (2008): 115-151.

[9] McLaren, Lauren, and Burak Cop. 2011. "The Failure Of Democracy In Turkey: A Comparative Analysis". Gov. & Oppos. 46 (04): 485-516.

[10] Akarcesme, Sevgi. 2015. “Davutoğlu lives in a world of dreams.” Today’s Zaman

[11] Rabasa, Angel, and F. Stephen Larabee. The rise of political Islam in Turkey. Vol. 726. Rand Corporation, 2008.

[12] Ibid, 11.

[13] Vatandas, Aydogan. 2015. What we have in Turkey, is hard democracy, a democradura. Today’s Zaman.

[14] Anderson, Clifford W. 2014. "Authoritarianism in Turkey." Networked Digital Library of Theses & Dissertations, EBSCOhost (accessed January 5, 2016).

[15]  Vatandas, Aydogan.  2015. “What we have in Turkey is a hard democracy, a demokradura. Today’s Zaman.

[16] Acemoglu, Daron. 2014. "The Failed Autocrat". Foreign Affairs.

[17] Yesil, Bilge. 2014. "Press Censorship in Turkey: Networks of State Power, Commercial Pressures, and Self-Censorship."Communication, Culture & Critique 7, no. 2: 154. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File, EBSCOhost (accessed January 5, 2016).

[18] Ibid, 19.

[19] Vatandas, Aydogan. 2014. How  did Erdogan become a media mogul in Turkey. Today’s Zaman.

[20] Görener, Aylin Ş., and Meltem Ş. Ucal. "The Personality and Leadership Style of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: Implications for Turkish Foreign Policy." Turkish Studies 12, no. 3 (2011): 357-381.

[21] Ibid, 20.

[22] Arik, Irfan and Yavuz, Cevit. The Importance of Leadership in International Relation-Recep Tayyip Erdogan Sample. International Journal of Research In Social Sciences. Jan. 2015. Vol. 4, No.9  

[23] Mixon, L. "Use of authoritarian charisma and national myth in the discourse of Hugo Chavez. Toward a critical model of the rhetorical analysis for political discourse of Hugo Chavez. Dissertaion." (2009).

[24] Pinto, António Costa, Roger Eatwell, and Stein Ugelvik Larsen. Charisma and Fascism. Routledge, 2014.

[25] Daily Sabah.  Turkey will not give up on its 2023 goals, President Erdoğan says. 2015 Retrived from:   http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2015/10/29/turkey-will-not-give-up-on-its-2023-goals-president-erdogan-says

[26] Vatandas, Aydogan.  Does Erdoğan have caliphate ambitions? Today’s Zaman. 2014.

[27] Chang, Maria Hsia. “Malignant Nationalism.” A paper presented at the Conference on Nationalism in Northeast Asia-Pacific Center of Security Studies (Honolulu, Hawaii: April 30-May 2, 2002)

[28] Ibid, 5.