The new power holders in Turkey

Does anyone really believe that shady former police ministers, ex-military officers, and a mafia boss are a promising profile of the alliance for a new revival of Turkey’s democracy?

As time goes on, more and more new ways in which the night of July 15, 2016 was a turning point for Turkey seem to come to light. The Gülenist coup attempt broke old alliances and produced new ones. That night, some of the representatives of the state’s old guard stood with Erdoğan and decided to oust the Gülenists. This also meant that some of the most extreme elements of the pre-Erdoğan era were bound to suddenly resurrect themselves, which also pushed Erdoğan himself to possibly the most extreme phase in his career.

A photograph taken and shared last week by a controversial businessman Üzeyir Çakmaktaş tells us something about these new alliances. The photo captures four well-known figures from the dark parts of Turkey’s history. One of them is Mehmet Ağar, a former Interior Minister from the mid-1990s, when unsolved murders were standard in Turkey. He was particularly known for imposing immense pressure on leftist groups and Kurds. Two other figures in the photo are the retired generals Korkut Eken and Engin Alan. Eken was a security officer trained in special warfare who became implicated in the Susurluk scandal after some of his subordinates were convicted of extrajudicial killings. Alan was arrested for an alleged coup probe under the infamous and now-debunked Ergenekon investigation back in 2009. The real “superstar” of the photo, though, is Alaatin Çakıcı, a mafia boss who was in prison until MHP leader Bahçeli worked out an amnesty law earlier this year under which dozens of heavy criminals, including Çakıcı, were released. Rumors say that Bahceli drafted this law as an almost custom-made piece of legislation for Çakıcı. Only a few months after his release, Çakıcı is now posing with former generals and possibly the shadiest Interior Minister in Turkey’s recent history. The caption under Çakmaktaş’ illustrative photo says “the heroes who beat every difficulty so that our State will exist forever.”

Besides gathering these colorful figures, this photo also is a gem for understanding the current political climate and the new alliances within the power mechanism in the country. Following a period of political isolation, judicial prosecution, and for some, even prison, the big guns of the 1990s and the mafia leaders are now posing for Instagram photos with pride. Not that long ago, this would be the kind of a photo that would make everyone involved want to hide it as best as possible. The protagonists today, however, seem satisfied to be a part of Turkey’s power structure again, and receive thousands of Instagram likes and approvals.

The coup attempt of July 15, 2016, among many other changes, also brought Erdoğan into a new universe of once-unlikely alliances. Many opportunists from the nationalist, Maoist and nationalist socialist circles turned against the Gülenists and as an “enemy of their enemy” joined Erdoğanists in the new power formation.

The pre-July 15 Erdoğan preferred to stand with Gülenists, Islamists, democratic moderates, and pro-Western groups. Erdoğan’s positioning started to change with the Gezi protests, but the coup plot pushed him toward a substantial change. He got backstabbed by the Gülenists, and lost trust in the West. The alternative was not to try and reinforce the old ideological and value-based alliances, but to build a completely new one.

The new alliance consists of the most anti-democratic parts of the old Turkish establishment alongside the most extremist Erdoğanist elements. The new alliance in power is not seeking to stop and reverse Turkey’s democratic backslide. The new alliance seeks authority. Some of the representatives of the new/old establishment openly recognized democracy as “a devilish play by the West.” Most of the new/old administrators would always choose the Eurasian direction for international partnerships over anything with the West. They believe the West is just distracting Turkey with the imposition of democratic principles, while its real aim is to impede the development of Turkey from becoming a global superpower.

Learning from the experiences of the now less-mentioned Erdoğanist-Gülenist coalition, it seems that the actual impediment to realizing the real will of the people was having an unelected clandestine group take over the most important positions in the state system. In particular, the judiciary and security forces functioned as playgrounds for Gülenists: critical voices were being framed and jailed left and right. At that time, some true democracy-loving intellectuals sincerely believed that getting rid of the Kemalist elements from the system would allow Turkey to become a liberal democracy. One thing they all neglected was that, in the transition that was supposed to clear the system of anti-democratic tendencies, which side is doing the clearing is also crucial. It turned out that a religious cult that never participated in democratic elections was not a good coalition partner to have in this process. The question now is: does anyone really believe that shady former police ministers, ex-military officers, and a mafia boss are a promising profile of the alliance for a new revival of Turkey’s democracy?