"Erdogan's Days Are Numbered'

Turkey's corruption scandal has put the prime minister's party under severe pressure. Lale Akgun, a German Social Democrat (SPD) politician with Turkish roots, says Erdogan fatally underestimated the Gulen movement

By Arnd Riekmann

What effect are the latest developments having on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Lale Akgun: He's never been as insecure as he is right now. In the past few months, Erdogan thought that, little by little, he would be able to extend his power – that he was invulnerable. I think that after the riots in Gezi Park and with the corruption accusations that have now come to light, he's more than just vulnerable: His days are numbered.

How closely does the corruption scandal touch him personally?

Akgün: Very closely indeed. His son Bilal has been summoned to appear before the public prosecutor on January 2 – not as a witness, but as a suspect, on charges of corruption and money-laundering. It's a ticking time-bomb in Erdogan's house.

Two ministers have already had to step down because their sons appear to have been involved in the corruption scandal. What does this mean, then, for Erdogan?

Fetullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/AP)
An eye for an eye: Like most observers, I believe that Gulen's followers have gone on the offensive now because they're aggrieved that the movement's schools have been closed down

Akgün: The analogy would be that Erdogan would also have to step down. But he's already talking about how, once again, it's all on account of these evil forces from abroad, who are now targeting his son in order to get at him. This means that Erdogan is going to try to cling to power for a while yet. But increasingly the judiciary is defying him because he's also trying to undermine the separation of powers. Erdogan said a week ago that, if it weren't for them, he could govern as he sees fit. On top of all this, more and more people are abandoning the sinking ship of the AKP.

The fact that the judiciary is now investigating the allegations of corruption in Turkish government circles – does that really come down to the followers of the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen?

Akgün: Yes, I think so. But Gulen's followers didn't invent the corruption cases. People in Turkey have been saying for years that Erdogan and his immediate circle have made themselves phenomenally rich. It's an open secret. Like most observers, I believe that Gulen's followers have gone on the offensive now because they're aggrieved that the movement's schools have been closed down.

It used to be said that Erdogan's AKP was like a bus with lots of very different people sitting in it. To begin with, there were intellectuals and leftists in there – people who believed the party would bring more democracy to Turkey. Now, though, more and more people are leaving the bus. The only ones still on board are the Milli Gorus people, and the followers of Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan thought: 'I'll chuck the Gulen lot off the bus myself.' But he underestimated the power of these people. Some of them occupy key positions – and were appointed with Erdogan's blessing.

We're seeing a new wave of anti-Erdogan demonstrations now. The Gulen movement isn't behind those. How strong is this sector of society, which belongs to neither of the two conservative camps?

Akgün: The third force in Turkey – as in, civil society – which genuinely does want more democracy and openness, really needs to form an organization now. But in the summer, I heard for myself how young people were saying that they didn't see themselves as a political force: 'We don't want to form a party; we just want to be 'anti.'' But that's not enough. This force – which has a lot of sympathizers – must be politically organized. If there were elections in Turkey, it would easily pass the 10-percent hurdle.

Gezi Park protestors (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
"We don't want to form a party; we just want to be 'anti'." Lale Akgün critizices that the Gezi park movement must go beyond the one common denominator of ousting Erdogan: "This force must be politically organized," she says

The Gezi movement is named after a park in Istanbul where citizens gathered last summer to protest against the government's controversial construction plans. We saw at the time that all kinds of people, very different people, had taken to the streets, just as they have again over the past few days: young and old, women and men, a whole cross-section of society. Are they sufficiently in agreement to be able to found a party?

Akgün: No – they're only actually agreed on one thing: Erdogan has to go! That's like the common denominator. And this will hold them together until Erdogan goes. My fear is that then Fethulah Gulen will present himself as a knight in shining armour and be celebrated by everyone because people think he's the lesser evil.

The European Union has been negotiating with Turkey over EU entry for decades. How should it respond to the current situation?

Akgün: The EU could be very helpful right now, in particular by supporting civil society with projects and programs, helping these people to organize so that they can become a force in politics.

Is there something the new German foreign minister, the SPD's Frank Walter Steinmeier, could, or should, be doing?

Akgün: He should – diplomatically, as befits a foreign minister – express his opinion. Because it's not acceptable that we, as a democratic state, should just look on while the prime minister of another country – albeit, admittedly, an elected prime minister – is behaving increasingly like an autocrat.

Social Democrat Lale Akgün served as a member of the German parliament from 2002 to 2009. She was born in Istanbul.

Interview by Arnd Riekmann

© Deutsche Welle 2013

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp