Anytime the prime minister of Turkey gets into trouble, some western commentators read it as a failure of “political Islam” and “Islamic democracy.” This is strange, given that his many unparalleled successes in office since 2002 were never proffered as proof of the success of his faith.

Remove that distorted lens and you will see Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing domestic political isolation as a triumph of democracy.

His crackdown on citizen protests in Istanbul last summer against the planned cutting of trees in a park for a mega-development triggered nation-wide demonstrations. His current targeting of police forces investigating corruption in high places, including sons of three cabinet ministers, has evinced criticism for political interference in police work.

Last summer he alienated the young and the liberals. Now he has angered the conservative establishment that has long been part of his constituency.

The end of his long honeymoon has emboldened some in his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish initials) to question his one-man rule. One outgoing cabinet minister asked him to step down.

On Dec. 17, police in Istanbul and Ankara probing bribery in government contracts arrested 49 people, including politicians and businessmen close to Erdogan. Embarrassingly huge stashes of cash were found in the homes of a cabinet minister and the head of a bank. Three ministers resigned, including one potential successor to Erdogan.

The prime minister struck back, in typical fashion.

Last May, he had labelled the youth protesters as “bums” and “louts” acting on behalf of “dark foreign forces” and the “interest rate lobby,” and his government cancelled a contract for the Koc Group because its hotel in Istanbul had sheltered protesters from police tear gas. Now he’s accusing the police and the judiciary of a “dirty plot” to embarrass his government. He has fired the police chiefs of 15 cities and reassigned hundreds of others. And his government has introduced a bill to give itself greater powers over the High Council of the Judges and Prosecutors that appoints judges and prosecutors.

More surprisingly, Erdogan and his cronies have labelled the targeted officials as “Gulenists,” followers of Fethullah Gulen. The 72-year-old Sufi cleric escaped Turkish military persecution in the 1990s and lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. He leads a social movement with millions of followers (including in Canada) who emphasize modern education and interfaith outreach. They own schools, universities and businesses, including media, and run think-tanks.

The AKP and the Gulenists once worked together to restore democracy. But differences have crept up since. Gulen was said to be unhappy over Erdogan’s needling of Israel, wary of interfering in Syria for fear of the crisis spilling over into Turkey, and angry over the crackdown on youth protesters.

Gulen is a quiet compromiser; Erdogan is voluminous and combative. But Gulen broke his silence last year by speaking of “hubris” in high places, without naming the prime minister. Erdogan threatened to close down Gulen schools. He now sees the police and prosecutorial probe as Gulenist retaliation, which the latter has denied.

Erdogan and supporters are accusing Gulenists of running “a parallel state structure” and mounting “a soft coup.” A senior AKP official, Osman Can, last week accused them of being loyal to their spiritual leader rather than the state. This is similar to the old canard against Catholics that they were loyal to the pope rather than the nation in which they lived (prompting the famous statement by John Kennedy in the 1960 election campaign that he took no orders on public policy from the pope).

Erdogan, the longest serving prime minister since Turkey became a democracy in 1950, has a track record of unprecedented achievements: turning a failed economy around and nearly tripling incomes within a decade; attracting $100 billion in foreign investment; building infrastructure; opening talks to join the European Union (only to be spurned by it); asserting civilian control over the army; arranging rapprochement with the Kurdish minority; returning the confiscated properties of religious minorities, Christians and Alevis (an esoteric branch of Shiite Islam); and redefining secularism in western terms, as neutrality between different faiths.

But he has risked it all by being intolerant of criticism, especially by the media — jailing journalists by the dozens, even if he has made the media far freer than they ever were; seeing conspiracies everywhere; interfering in every aspect of the administration.

He is busy destroying himself. Let him. Nothing like a functioning democracy exposing the leader’s fatal flaws.

Haroon Siddiqui’s column appears on Thursday and Sunday.

Source: Toronto Star