How Erdogan’s Troubles Are Good for Turkey

The massive corruption scandal that has rocked the Turkish government, may be bad for its Prime Minister, but good for Turkey in the long-term

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Burhan Ozbilici / AP

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Dec. 18, 2013.

Translation does not do proper service to Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the full name of the party headed by Turkey’s besieged Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In English, it comes out as “Justice and Development Party.” But in the country it has dominated for more than a decade, the party is known by its all-important initials, AK, two letters that form a word understood as “white,” “pure,” “clean” or, best of all, “unblemished.”

Those qualities constituted the fundamental appeal of the newly-minted party at the moment of its creation, in 2001: More than it ever was “Islamist,” AK Parti (AKP) was a populist effort in a Muslim country where staunchly secular parties just one year earlier had driven the economy deep into the ground, with the gross national product falling into negative territory and the country’s currency, the lira, losing a third of its value. What AKP promised was reform. Religious piety, too, but chiefly as the quality that informed the character of its leadership — just as it did the surging Anatolian business establishment that lined up behind it, and the heartland Turk to which it made its appeal.

“Are you ready to bring an AK Parti government with your votes as white as your mothers’ milk?” Erdogan asked in his stump speech, the same one that railed against “those who emptied the banks.” The crowd of textile workers and shopkeepers roared their approval, as it has in every election since.

“Everybody’s religious belief is something personal,” a laborer named Nevzer Birtekin told me after the Istanbul rally. “But he’s honest. That’s what determines it for me.”

Today, having overseen the expansion of a Turkish economy that’s triple the size of what it was when he took office, Erdogan staggers under the weight of a corruption scandal that rises directly from the extraordinary success of his no-longer unblemished party: As the most dominant player in Turkish politics, the AKP grew only more powerful and cozy with its business backers.

On Dec. 18, police reported finding $4.5 million in shoe boxes in the home of manager of the state-owned Halkbank. The sons of three ministers were arrested; then eight days later their fathers resigned their government posts. The one said to be closest to the premier, urban planning minister Erdogan Bayraktar, declared on a private news channel that Erdogan should step down too, saying “the majority of the construction plans” at issue in the corruption case were approved on his order.

It was a galvanizing moment, all the more so for what was happening at almost the same instant in Cairo: The Egyptian government was declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization – the same group that, six months earlier, held the presidency and parliament, each won by free elections, until the military coup of July 3.

It’s the kind of thing that used to happen in Turkey: Four times since 1960 the secular Turkish military pushed aside elected governments. But today, the generals remain on the sidelines, defanged in a massive coup-conspiracy case brought by the same prosecutor now knocking on Erdogan’s door.

The prosecutor, Muammar Akkas, has been knocked off the case, as were several hundred police officers. But it’s all happening in plain view, amid a tumult that can only be described as invigorating. Like the street protests that erupted across Turkey over the summer (also occasioned by a real estate project), the latest crisis tests not so much Erdogan – whose vainglory appears impervious to events – but the strength of Turkish democracy, which in the space of just months shows signs of maturing. News outlets that ignored the summer protests out of fear of the prime minister – Turkey leads the world in jailed journalists — have been breathless on this story. Over the past weekend, two papers published a copy of the prosecutor’s summons for Erdogan’s own son, Bilal, on suspicion of “forming a criminal gang.”

Erdogan says his primary tormentors are aligned with a former supporter, Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish leader of a formidable, moderate Islamic movement who lives in Pennsylvania. If the allegation is true, count it as yet another achievement of an AKP teetering under the weight of its success: The fault line in Turkish public life now runs between two publicly religious politicians (both of them followers of  Islam’s mystical and tolerant Sufi strains). If the focus stays on facts — with the media and judiciary showing their work — the scandal might well leave Turks with what they’ve never quite had: a democracy in more than name.

“At some point there was bound to be a correction,” says Hugh Pope, who follows Turkey for the International Crisis Group. “Erdogan still has reserves of raw political power, but will have to convincingly reach back to the AKP’s more reform-minded, inclusive past if he is to convince Turkish voters in the coming series of elections that he is still in tune with the mainstream.”

What’s not on the line in Turkey is that thing Erdogan’s career was always supposed to be about: The future of political Islam. In an earlier incarnation, Erdogan was indeed a proud political Islamist – one who believes that the teachings of the Koran must be put into effect governing the nation. But his personal ambition turned out to be stronger, and he bent his philosophy to fit Turkey’s resolutely secular democratic structure. The result was a watershed in Middle Eastern political history: “The Turkish Model” of democratic governance in a Muslim nation.

Frequently invoked in the immediate afterglow of the Arab Spring as an option for Arab neighbors groping for a way forward without despots, Erdogan took it on the road in 2011. His first stop was Egypt. “The Turkish state is in its core a state of freedoms and secularism,” he said in Cairo. A couple years on—with the Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia that Erdogan backed now banned or in retreat—it’s not clear anyone was listening. At least not with the same attention evident when Erdogan stood before that crowd of textile workers in Istanbul a decade earlier.

“This has got nothing to do with Islam,” a man named Abdullah Kocak told me at the time. “We see a hope here.”