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A new episode in the covert Erdoğan-Gülen power struggle bubbled quietly to the surface last week. The fault line was apparently once again Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to change Turkey to a presidential political system. I was alerted to this latest possible rift by the May 9 front page of arch-secularist Cumhuriyet, which brandished two recent pieces of evidence: The first was veiled criticism issued by influential U.S.-based religious preacher Fethullah Gülen, broadcast recently on the major Gülenist television station Samanyolu; the second was a column published in the Gülen-affiliated newspaper Zaman, written by “Gülen mouthpiece” Hüseyin Gülerce.

According to the Cumhuriyet article, titled “Heavy hints from Gülen to Erdoğan,” Gülen suggested the following in a recent Samanyolu broadcast:

“Sometimes power makes a person arrogant. Even if they are a believer, they may morally be a pharaoh … Sometimes, blessings constantly pour from above and in that way a person can become a Nimrod, or a pharaoh … An ordinary person can arrive, take advantage of certain possibilities, and is able to sit at the helm of power. But after being at the helm for a while, he may come to lose respect for those who he has brought so far in the vehicle. He may always look at the people from on high, telling them ‘stay in your place.’ If others say anything, he may reply with something like, ‘Shut up. You don’t understand this business. Whatever I say goes.’”

Cumhuriyet linked these cryptic words to an equally cryptic column by Hüseyin Gülerce, published in the Turkish and English language versions of Zaman on May 7 and 8. In it, Gülerce wrote about the possible changes to the political system, and appeared to advise against Erdoğan putting himself forward as a candidate for either a newly-empowered executive presidential chair, or a party-affiliated one:

“The impression that the AK Party negotiated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in return for the presidential system cannot be fixed … It does not seem possible for the AK Party to convince the people and other stakeholders that the presidential or semi-presidential system is the best option after all these developments.

“The only thing the AK Party will insist on at this point is a partisan president … [But] a surprise move … may be that the prime minister does not run for the presidency. The prime minister has not so far publicly announced that he will run for the presidency. There will be no need for a partisan president in the event that he does not become a candidate in the election.”

Of course, tension between the Gülen movement and Erdoğan has long been speculated on. In a smart recent piece for Turkey Analyst, Svante E. Cornell suggested that growing numbers within the movement are switching their allegiances to current President Abdullah Gül, frustrated at Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian and personality-driven political style. Still, it’s striking that the issue is considered such a taboo that it is rarely mentioned openly in the mainstream Turkish media. An issue of such significance to the country’s political future is therefore discussed only through whispers, rumours and conjecture. Whatever truth comes from such speculation, smoke and mirrors certainly don’t help ease concerns about the movement’s lack of transparency, or its “hidden agenda.”

In another plot twist, the vice president of the Gülen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation, Cemal Usak, recently suggested that Gülen “may return to Turkey” if a “civil and democratic constitution” is adopted. Whatever that means in the grand scheme of things, it seems likely that heads will continue to be scratched over the whole issue for a while yet.

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The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its key congress on Sunday (Sept. 30), the slogan of which was “Büyük Millet, Büyük Güç, Hedef 2023” (Great Nation, Great Strength, Target 2023). Throughout his emotional two-and-a-half hour speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in full neo-Ottoman mode. He told the 10,000 delegates packed into the Ankara arena that the government was following the same path as Sultan Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and Selim I (“The Grim,” who expanded Ottoman territories to the east during the 16th century). He even went so far as to declare – tongue only half in cheek – that the AKP’s new target was 2071, linking the party back to the first Turkish Anatolian state-builders of the 11th century, 2071 being the 1,000th anniversary of Seljuk Turkish leader Alp Arslan’s entry into Anatolia.

It was a speech high in stirring rhetoric. The day after, government supporting newspapers fawned over the “renewal” and “refreshing” emphasis of a new “ustalık” (mastership) era. Daily Sabah focused on what it called the embracing, inclusive nature of Erdoğan’s speech and his words on the Kurdish issue: “Let’s draw a new roadmap together.” Zaman’s front page headline enthusiastically quoted a line from Erdoğan’s speech: “Come, let’s open a new page, let’s say ‘no to terror.’”

The contentious presence of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional leader Massoud Barzani at the congress was rather less trumpeted by Sabah and Zaman. He even gave a speech to the delegates, but the announcer in the arena refrained from using the word “Kurdistan” when introducing him. Indeed, rather than Barzani, it was Erdoğan’s words on the Kurds that received most attention in the pro-government press. This reminded me of one of Nuray Mert’s recent columns in the Hürriyet Daily News:

“The idea of the Ottoman Empire has induced a nostalgic longing for the days when Turkish sultans ruled diverse people in vast lands. For Ottomanists, the idea of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic haven for diverse cultures and populations is rather misleading, since the basic idea has always been to recall the times when diverse populations lived under ‘Turkish rule.’”

The conspicuously Islamic nature of the congress was also much discussed in the Turkish press – both by those approving and those dissenting. Beside its headline declaring “Great Strength Manifesto,” Islamist daily Yeni Şafak featured an admiring front page box quoting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, controversially (or perhaps not) invited to speak at the event: “‘You are not just the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of the Islamic world,’ Meshaal said, receiving extended applause from the crowd.” Indeed, when announced to the audience Mashaal received some of the loudest cheers of the day, (the EU dignitary who was introduced after him didn’t stand a chance!)

Liberal daily Taraf agreed that the congress constituted a Turkish-Islamic “minifesto,” but struck a rather more sceptical tone: “There was a strong Turkish and Muslim emphasis, a mouse with its face turned to the East was born,” (in Turkish, “a mouse was born” means that something underwhelming took place). The paper also noted plaintively that Erdoğan had failed to mention the European Union even once during his speech.

Meanwhile, seven national newspapers were refused accreditation to attend: Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel, Birgün, Aydınlık, Yeniçağ, and Özgür Gündem. These publications have diverse sympathies: from left to right wing, from Turkish to Kurdish nationalism. The only thing shared by all is antipathy towards the government.

In response, Monday’s Cumhuriyet included a front page editorial titled “From Cumhuriyet to Public Opinion,” which said some unsurprisingly harsh things:

“Established six months after the founding of the Turkish Republic, our newspaper has been published for 88 years. During periods in the past when democracy has been suspended by the ruling powers our newspaper has been closed down, but outside of this we have always published under the principles of freedom of the press, in the name of people’s right to know. In 21st century Turkey, our newspaper is now exposed to censorship by the ruling powers.

“We will not stay quiet in the face of the anti-democratic implementations applied against us that violate both the constitution and the law.”

The piece went on to detail two constitutional and legal articles that it alleges the congress ban violated: Article no. 69 of the Turkish constitution, which states that internal political party activities, arrangements, and workings must not run counter to the principles of democracy; and Article no. 93 of the Law on Political Parties, which states that decisions taken and actions performed by party central administrations and affiliated groups must not run counter to the principles of democracy.

The International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee issued a statement about the issue on the day of the AKP Congress, on behalf of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey:

“The news that reporters and journalists from some press organs are not allowed to enter the AK Party’s Congress is very worrying.

“Monitoring this historical event of the ruling government party on the spot and transferring it to its readers and viewers are primary duties of news media.

“We have previously protested the accreditation limitations at other institutions. But now, it is very disappointing that the same accreditation is being applied by a political party whose existence depends on democracy.”

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