It has been a tumultuous few weeks in Turkey as a number of corruption investigations went public, implicating members of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government; the government’s retaliatory measures are leading to a constitutional crisis as state prosecutors are being openly threatened and their orders ignored.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan justifies his response on the grounds that the corruption investigations are in fact a “global operation” orchestrated by “internal” and “external” allies to topple his government. He justifies the reassigning (demotion) of almost 2,000 police chiefs and officers (including those that are or could be leading investigations into government corruption) on the grounds that they are members of the internal “gang” charged by their “international masters” with staging the operations. Erdoğan’s government claims that this internal gang is the Fethullah Gülen-inspired Hizmet movement, which has “infiltrated” the state and forms what he calls an autonomous “parallel state.”

To me it is glaringly obvious what Erdoğan is doing: misdirection for the sake of justifying his retaliatory measures. That said, there comes a point in any crisis or argument when you need to tackle and address such claims, if only to redirect the discussion back to its proper course. Hence this piece’s aim of appraising Erdoğan’s claims of a “parallel state.”

The first question to ask is whether Erdoğan offers any hard evidence to justify his accusation of a parallel state. The answer so far is no. Avid Turkey followers will recall that Erdoğan claimed that the Gezi protests were similarly executed by an international “interest lobby” and that he would produce evidence in due course. He has yet to do so on that front too. In the absence of evidence, Erdoğan and his team offer a number of arguments: “The investigating police officers did not inform their superiors within the police force, despite the fact that the probe went on for 15 months” — it later transpired that the police could not do so without the prosecutor’s authorisation due to a law passed by the AK Party government in 2004 and a directive in 2005; “the extensive evidence leaks from the investigations” — unfortunately, not at all uncommon in Turkey and other parts of the world; “the curious timing of the wave of detentions three months before the local elections” — evidence in the public domain suggests that the suspects had been tipped off about the ongoing investigations, forcing the prosecution to act when they did; “the investigations target the country’s leading construction companies” — justifiable since the investigations concern corruption and bribery involving government-commissioned construction projects. The judiciary is not beyond criticism; but none of the above supports or proves Erdoğan’s claim.

Proving a parallel state

My argument against Erdoğan’s parallel-state accusation, whoever it is levied at, is this: I have none. In law, he who claims must prove; in logic, it is far more difficult to prove the nonexistence of something than it is to prove its existence. So within the realm of possibility, there may or may not be a parallel state. If there is, it should be investigated and brought before the courts through due process. The whole point of having an independent judiciary is to allow the judicial process to determine allegations of wrongdoing and criminality — be that allegations of corruption or allegations of a parallel state.

If the claim is that the parallel state has infiltrated the judiciary too, my response is the same: What is the evidence? In the days of digital footprints, it is far easier to gather evidence then it has been at any time in human history. What’s more, even if we entertain the possibility of a biased judiciary, judges still have to base their decisions on law and evidence. As pointed out by Ihsan Yilmaz of Fatih University, the AK Party closure case is a point in hand. There was nothing to justify the closure of the party, so whatever the prosecutor and judges preferred to do, they had to go by the evidence they had. The same outcome ensued in the case against Gülen in 2006, despite the staunchly secular courts. What’s more, Turkey is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. If the judicial process in Turkey infringes the right to fair trial (Article 6) in any way, then the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)will say so as it has done many times before.

In addition the court of law, there is the court of public opinion, our collective judgment and assessment of the case. When the interior minister explains that his son had six large steel safes in his flat because these were left over from his failed “consultancy business,” the public laughs for a reason. Similarly, people protest when Erdoğan explains footage showing a businessman’s aide entering a minister’s private office with carry-on luggage and then leaving without it as “Turkish etiquette of taking sweets to those being visited.” When presented with the evidence, facts and arguments, ordinary people have a good sense of judgment; hence the advantage in most instances of trial by jury over judge.

What’s more, how can a parallel state mount a campaign against a strong government when it is the government that appoints and reassigns such people in the first place? You take one snip at the government and you’re gone, reassigned to oblivion. What is the point of that? For it to work you would need to be shielded from the government’s reach and influence and very few, if any, are, except — in theory — for the judiciary and we have seen what can happen to them as per the example of prosecutor Muammer Akkaş, who was removed from the second wave of operations he was leading when he sought to have an additional 41 suspects questioned on Dec. 25.

Looking at the arguments against the Hizmet movement

As for the argument that the Hizmet movement comprises this autonomous parallel state, my response is as follows:

Gülen was acquitted of the same charge of infiltrating the state in a trial that lasted six years, between 2000 and 2006, where the state prosecutor included every piece of evidence and argument available to him. His acquittal was upheld by the highest court of appeal in the land in 2008. What’s more, similar accusations were dismissed by the Turkish judiciary in the 1980s and 1990s.

Furthermore, if the Hizmet movement wanted to control the state, it could easily do so by forming a political party and going into politics, as in Erdoğan’s example. Why waste time and energy in opening schools in obscure parts of the world when you can win elections in Turkey and “take over the state” that way?

Finally, the last thing a parallel state would do is support democracy, transparency, accountability, the rule of law, meritocracy, a new progressive civilian constitution, greater freedoms and international interconnectedness because doing so would inevitably lead to self-exposure. If the Hizmet movement was the parallel state, then why would it support such progressive positions and steps (by, for example, consistently supporting Turkey’s EU membership bid) that would only serve to expose and undermine itself?

So what is it that is really bothering Erdoğan? Is it a parallel state that he has suddenly discovered after 11 years of government, or an independent judiciary that is willing to investigate government corruption? Whatever the truth, we have to allow the rule of law and judicial process to determine; we can then critique and appraise. Otherwise, we will misdirect ourselves all the way to a constitutional crisis and beyond.

Published on Today’s Zaman, 11 January 2014.