There had, over the years, been plenty of occasions when the activities of MİT should have been questioned, including the recently uncovered wiretapping of Taraf newspaper writers. What is extraordinary in this particular instance is that a special prosecutor summoned the head of MİT and several other members of the organization to come and testify about their contacts with high-level Kurdish militants, even though these contacts were apparently established at the behest of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as part of the inconclusive Kurdish opening launched by the government in 2009.
The government has now removed the prosecutor in question from his post, and high-level police officials have been reassigned to new duties. But uncertainty still reigns as to what the coming days will bring, and indeed, what Turkey’s political and institutional landscape will look like when the dust settles.
Rivalry between state institutions is, of course, not a new problem in Turkey. What makes the current situation different is that the government had, to a large extent, managed to wrest control of the various pillars of the state from its secular opponents, and the current dispute appears to be taking place within the conservative segment. Speculation is rife: Is it a power struggle between the supporters of Fethullah Gülen and the government, as some commentators suggest, or rather one between factions divided by conflicting approaches to the Kurdish issue? There had been little evidence of such a conflict in recent weeks since government officials voiced support on several occasions for the controversial waves of arrests that have resulted in the detention of hundreds of people, including academics and journalists, allegedly linked to the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK). Others apparently believe the intervention was timed to prevent the government from launching a new round of negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), apparently planned for the spring. Time may lift some of the fog and bring some clarity to these unexpected events.
What the latest confusion has already highlighted, however, is that Turkey cannot hope to achieve stability through half measures: The democratization drive launched by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) during the early years of its rule was never completed, and the government’s reluctance to push for state institutions to become fully transparent and accountable appears to have come back to bite it. Turkey’s poor legislative framework, the wide powers given to special prosecutors, the broad definition of terrorism in the law and the even more elastic interpretation of these provisions by the judiciary have once again been shown to be major weaknesses. Will the government see this crisis as a wakeup call and understand the need to complete the job by improving checks and balances and promoting a new constitution based on the rights of citizens rather than the interests of the state and its numerous institutions? So far, the signs are not encouraging since its first reaction was to order the preparation of an ad hoc legal amendment that would shield MİT operatives but do little to improve democratic standards in the country. The crisis also demonstrates with great clarity that the Kurdish question remains Turkey’s weakest link, wide open to manipulation by internal and external forces, and that no government will be able to fully assert its power until it has been resolved. As things stand, with the PKK and KCK still considered major threats, every state institution from the army to the police, from MİT to the judiciary, has a stake in what goes on. Given that information sharing has always been insufficient and institutions tend to be fiercely territorial, it becomes a case of too many cooks spoiling the soup, and no unified and successful policy can emerge. Since the June 2011 elections, the notion, previously discredited, that air raids, security operations and wide-scale arrests could eradicate the PKK has apparently become dominant again, along with the idea that reforms could follow for the Kurds, but on the state’s terms. Turkey has to address the threat posed by potential PKK attacks, but this approach will only serve to further alienate the Kurdish population, whose trust in the state is already eroded.
Who will gain the upper hand and indeed, who exactly the sides are in this chaotic situation is unclear. But unless the government, which commands strong support, seizes this opportunity to put the country’s progress on a sounder footing and chooses to give new momentum to the democratization process and the quest for a political solution to the Kurdish issue, the real loser will be, as always, Turkey, whose political stability at home and credibility abroad have been shaken by this episode.