Turkey’s clandestine networks and Erdoğan’s authoritarianism

A “natural-born Kemalist” retired navy admiral, another retired officer from the special forces, a leftist journalist, an Islamic sect leader in his religious cloak, a ‘neutral’ political scientist, and the leader of a so-called far-left party… Today, it is more than ordinary for audiences in Turkey to watch these figures coming from many different ideological backgrounds in the same television programme, all defending the regime’s policies – the concept of “Blue Homeland” for instance – not only in the same discourse, but also with a similar degree of passion.

But why, and how?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has re-shaped the democratic constitutional order into an executive presidential system with weak to no accountability, in a process that has accelerated after the failed coup of July 15, 2016. Although this new system was undoubtedly a clear deviation from the prior secular and democratic acquis of the country in many ways, Erdoğan faced very little resistance against powerful actors of the establishment.

One of the key elements of Erdoğan’s achievement in shattering any sources of potential resistance and consolidating his rule, it can be argued, lies in his success in co-opting various clandestine networks.

Defined sometimes as the ‘bribing’ of the opposition, co-optation is as a form of cooperation, in which the incumbent gives insider status or political benefits to a regime outsider in exchange for its loyalty. By co-opting a network or agent, the leader eradicates challengers, shapes his public image through credible social leaders and sustains control without employing repressive methods. The co-opted actor is persuaded not to exercise his power to obstruct and instead use the resources complying with the ruler’s demands.

We can define clandestine networks as underground organisations, secret societies, illicit or dark networks and covert collectives. They function in concealed places, their members are unknown to the rest of the society and they have blurred aims. Their members keep their affiliations secret and conceal organisational activities. In some cases, they operate in such obscurity that it is even not possible to suggest whether they really exist or not. Yet, they do.

In Turkey’s case, it was probably the 1996 Susurluk Accident which first unveiled such networks within the security institutions that were engaged in illegal and unofficial covert operations. Abdullah Çatlı, a killer and drug trafficker wanted by Interpol, and Hüseyin Kocadağ, a former deputy head of the Istanbul Police Department, died in the car crash in Susurluk. Parliament member Sedat Bucak, the leader of a Kurdish tribe allied with the state against Kurdish insurgents, was wounded.

Several forged documents and copious amounts of drugs, weapons and money were found in the car. Following the crash, connections between the state and mafia, as well as illicit acts by the Turkish gendarmerie’s intelligence and counter-terrorism agency (JİTEM) and special forces unit (Özel Harekat) were revealed.

Today, although it is unclear which one group or leader among them actually pulls the levers, Turkey appears to be a large pool of clandestine networks made up of active and retired military officials, bureaucrats, businessmen, academics, religious propagandists, journalists and mafia hitmen.

Zealously backing Erdoğan’s initiatives are a wide array of figures: ultra-right figure and mafia leader Alaattin Çakıcı, head of a Naqshbandi order Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü (known by his alias “Ahmet Hodja the Cloaked”) and the leader of the ultra-nationalist, quasi-leftist Fatherland Party, Doğu Perinçek.

Perhaps more surprising is that the once-Kemalist military is seemingly showing signs of silent endorsement for this state of affairs. It is maybe for this reason that some say Erdoğan ultimately triumphed over Turkey’s deep state, while others maintain he simply created a new one under his own control.

The truth may be even more chaotic than either option, and there is true, profound uncertainty about who really governs the country.

Erdoğan himself has acknowledged the deep state from his early days in power.

In a televised discussion in 2007, following the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, he said the deep state “has always existed, and did not start with the Republic of Turkey”. He added that such “gang-like organisation in institutions” should be “eliminated if possible, if not, minimised”, as journalist Mehmet Barlas recounted at the time.

Erdoğan said on multiple occasions that his four-month imprisonment in 1999 that resulted in a ban from politics, as well as the vocal objection to Abdullah Gül’s bid for presidency in 2007, stemmed from “mechanisms of tutelage” that had influence in Turkey. The Ergenekon investigation, in which top military officials and their civilian allies faced prison time and charges of conspiracy to overthrow the elected government, launched in 2007 and was touted by Erdoğan’s government as the big fight against the deep state.

During this time, both Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were on good terms with Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lived in the United States for cited health reasons. Government officials frequently praised Gülen, and Erdoğan himself called for him to return to Turkey. However, when this alliance collapsed in December 2013 with a corruption scandal that indicted members of Erdoğan’s family and ministers in his cabinet, the president took a pragmatist turn and co-opted his erstwhile foes, the Eurasianists and ultra-nationalists – most of whom happened to be convicted defendants in the Ergenekon case.

Ultimately, Turkey’s top courts dismissed Ergenekon-related cases over inconclusive evidence, and the defendants released from prison became Erdoğan’s supporters. Thus, instead of being a major step towards the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, these investigations became a springboard towards the consolidation of an authoritarian regime.

However, Perinçek believed this move made Erdoğan vulnerable. The nationalist politician said last year that Erdoğan had not governed Turkey since 2014, but was governed by it. “By Turkey I mean the military, police, businessmen, workers, and the Fatherland Party,” he told the Independent in an interview.

This article series will continue with a closer look on the dynamics on the ground, how present Erdoğan co-opted clandestine networks, their placement in state cadres and the security apparatus, and their future implications for Turkey.