Cracks have been deepening in Turkey's new religious ruling class since the Gezi uprising in May last year. There is now an open and brutal war between two governing factions. This will likely escalate after the local government elections on March 30.
Followers of Turkey’s best-known cleric and moral didact, Fetullah Gulen, have been encouraged for decades to work within Turkey's government and have accrued much power.
Gulan lives in exile in Pennsylvania in the US. His sect enjoys strong support as a “moderate” brand of Islam in the US and other Western countries including Australia, especially since September 11, 2001.
Gulen has hundreds of thousands of followers inside and outside Turkey and operates private schools throughout the world. Graduates from Gulen schools are encouraged to move into positions of influence, especially in government.
Little is known of the aims of the Gulen movement, although it is known that it tried to derail secret peace talks between the Turkish government and the PKK in Oslo between 2009 and 2011 by recording and publicising the talks. Their operatives also arrested hundreds of Kurdish politicians and intellectuals even at the height of the “peace process”.
To all appearances, they have until now worked in alliance with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now that alliance has collapsed spectacularly.
Erdogan has declared the Gulen movement to be a “parallel state”, or a “state within state”, and is moving to destroy it.
Police, prosecutors, judges and bureaucrats loyal to Gulen launched an anti-corruption campaign against Erdogan’s inner circle in December last year. Three ministers’ sons were arrested and four members of Erdogan’s cabinet were forced to resign.
In retaliation, Erdogan has removed thousands of Gulen followers from their official positions, especially in the police and judiciary. Senior prosecutors involved in the corruption crackdown and bureaucrats associated with the departed ministers have also been shuffled or dismissed.
Erdogan has also passed legislation to force the closure of hundreds of Gulen’s private schools.
Gulen’s “parallel state” is now leaking years of recordings of corrupt conversations between Erdogan and his inner circle. These have been collected using phone taps, many of which were legally sanctioned by Gulen officials.
Erdogan’s image has suffered badly since Gezi. His actions against the uprising, sparked by protests to save Taksin Gezi Park, revealed him to be brutal. Now, he is increasingly revealed as corrupt.
Erdogan has gone so far as to try to ban twitter in a vain effort to stop his corrupt phone tapped conversations from being spread via social media, earning him the title “dictator”.
Developments since Gezi have provided much-needed breathing space to the Turkish-Kurdish left opposition in the lead-up to the March 30 council elections.
Sirri Sureyya Onder is a People’s Democratic Party (HDP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul. Onder is also a hero of Gezi and one of the original defenders of the park.
In the Istanbul poll, Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is running neck and neck with the social democratic Republican People's Party (CHP).
Onder stands to hold the balance of power. The CHP is applying strong pressure on Onder to withdraw his candidacy in their favour.
The HDP’s main slogan for its local government campaign is “You Own The City”, drawing a thick line distinguishing itself from the other parties.
HDP offices have been physically attacked more than 30 times across the country during the election campaign. All attacks were by nationalists with cooperation and protection from local police and other officials. This has triggered a support campaign under the slogan “HDP is not alone”.
The HDP distinguishes itself from other parties by its diversity. Of their 261 mayoral candidates, 169 are women and many others are LGBTI and from a range of ethnic and religious minorities.
Whatever the election results, political tensions are set to remain high in Turkey. People will increasingly look for a political alternative in the coming period.