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December 31, 2013, Tuesday

How the mighty Erdoğan has faltered

Only a short time ago, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a well-respected leader.

Many of his counterparts saw him as somebody working to deepen democracy and freedoms in Turkey, somebody who pledged equal rights for all citizens, a man who supported the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, a leader who listened to others and a role model for the Muslim world. In 2013, this image shattered when a much darker side to Erdoğan was exposed.

Erdoğan has fallen into the trap of believing he is invincible, taking on increasingly autocratic tendencies, trying to impose his own Islamic ideology and becoming progressively repressive and less democratic almost by the day. The Gezi Park anti-government demonstrations exposed Erdoğan as a leader far from being democratic, crushing his credibility. The massive bribery and corruption scandal that has been unfolding since Dec. 17 has left him and those close to him totally exposed.

Erdoğan has failed to act in an accountable, democratic manner. Rather, a cover-up operation seems to be taking place. The rule of law and independence of the judiciary have been violated, with the government apparently intervening and influencing what should be an independent judicial investigation. This is wholly unacceptable. Hundreds of police chiefs have been fired and the key prosecutor, Muammer Akkaş, removed. In a number of speeches, Erdoğan has expressed conspiracy theories and “an operation with international dimensions and local sub-contractors.” Erdoğan has pointed the finger of blame directly at foreign actors and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, painting them as villains, perhaps in the hope that he can take the spotlight off himself and his government. This is sheer folly. There is a well-known Turkish proverb that says “The fish stinks from its head,” meaning that the corruption and those who are corrupt are at the top of the system. Erdoğan's extreme moves would seem to show that he wants to prevent deeper investigation. His behavior is almost identical to how hardcore Kemalists once acted to try to create a society shaped around their ideals, excluding or cracking down on those who do not conform to them. As they did, Erdoğan will fail.

Turkey's international partners are alarmed by the new scandal. The EU has warned Erdoğan against interfering in the independence of the judiciary and Peter Stano, spokesman for European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle, has stated that “the latest developments, including the sacking of police chiefs and the instructions to police to inform authorities on investigations, raise serious concerns in regard to the independence, efficiency and impartiality of the investigations and the separation of powers.” This statement has fallen on deaf ears, with the EU pretty much being told to mind its own business. Erdoğan is due to visit Brussels in mid-January at the invitation of European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. No doubt these issues will be raised -- unless, of course, the visit is called off. Meanwhile, Washington is still reeling from the totally unfounded allegations that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone was involved in the scandal.

The Turkish economy is also paying a price. The Turkish lira and stock market are tanking, with foreign investors unloading its sovereign debt. Even before the corruption scandal emerged, the lira had been weakened by Turkey's growing current account deficit (CAD). Now that deficit is growing even larger as risk-averse foreign investors sell off Turkish debt at the fastest pace in two years.

The mighty Erdoğan seems to have thrown himself off a cliff. Whether he can climb back up may depend on the March local elections, which seem set to be a fierce battle. Erdoğan is a survivor and should not be underestimated. He also has in his favor a weak and seemingly hopeless opposition. Turkey badly needs a serious opposition party so that there will be an effective system of checks and balances. There are many questions to be answered. Will there be early parliamentary elections? Who will be the next president? Can the increasing internal rifts in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lead to President Abdullah Gül, whose popularity continues to grow, becoming the next prime minister? Will a new party sprout out of the AKP?

Turkey's political landscape is set for an exciting 2014 and I look forward to sharing it with Today's Zaman's readers. Happy New Year, everybody!

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