ISTANBUL - As authorities in Turkey continue to make arrests in connection with July’s failed military coup, some observers there are asking why the crackdown has not affected the ruling AKP party, given that the coup attempt's alleged ringleader, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, once had close ties with the party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Arrest warrants were issued Friday for 189 judges and prosecutors, all accused of having links to Gulen. More than 30,000 people have been arrested, most of them from the military, the education system and the judiciary.
Erdogan has defended the scale of the crackdown, claiming that Gulen’s supporters infiltrated all government sectors over decades and ultimately used that network in a bid to seize power. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup attempt.
Opposition parties increasingly are asking why the probe has not reached the doors of Erdogan’s AKP party, given its past close relations with Gulen.
Selin Sayek Boke, deputy head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party and its spokesperson, says the fact the lack of attention to the inroads Gulen's followers made into the ruling party calls into question the legitimacy of the coup investigation.
“We don't see a sincere attempt to cleanse this organization from [the] AKP [itself],” she said.
Erdogan made little secret of his close alliance with Gulen, once famously declaring “we have given you everything you wanted.” In his early years in power, Erdogan saw Gulen’s powerful network of followers within the state as a useful tool in countering the powerful pro-secular military, which was hostile to Erdogan's Islamist leanings.
“Erdogan came out and accepted the decade-long alliance between the AKP and the Gulenists,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “But at some point the investigations should also implicate cases against [the] AK party's own members, who for so long have backed the Gulenists both internally and externally.
Many of those arrested have been accused of using an encryption communication app called “Bylock” in connection with the coup. Prosecutors allege the app was created and used by Gulen supporters to communicate about the coup plot. Turkish security forces claim to have broken the app's encryption, allowing them to find many conspirators.
In a rare display of dissent, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the opposition National Action Party and a strong backer of Erdogan, highlighted the double standards in the investigation.
“For example, if a civil servant who used ByLock is being arrested, while a politician or a high-ranking official who is also involved in the same act is being ignored, this would create a victimization,” said Bahceli.
“It really depends how he [Erdogan] plays this,” said Semih Idiz, a political columnist for the Al-Monitor website. The question, he said, is whether the Turkish president is "trying to instrumentalize this to realize his ideological and personal ambitions," or is, instead, putting "himself in a position where he projects the image of having the country’s concerns ... above everything else."
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced this week that the government will restart efforts to realize Erdogan's plan to change the constitution and transform Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. That announcement fueled speculation the crackdown is merely a power grab.
The reason the crackdown has not targeted the AKP may be the scale of the number of Gulen supporters within the party. According to one report, two prominent mayors, five to six cabinet ministers and as many as 60 AKP deputies may have links with Gulen.
“The issue there is whether the ruling management of AK Party and Erdogan are essentially able to contain the damage that this would do to the AK Party,” said analyst Ulgen. “If they start such a process, I think there is uncertainty as to what the damage will be.“
Observers say Erdogan is likely facing pressure from within his party to avoid a major purge because of the potential political fallout. A presidential source insists an extensive investigation is already underway, though, and says Erdogan is determined to purge all Gulen elements from the party, whatever the cost, adding it is only “a matter of time.”