BACKGROUND: Born in 1977, Gül comes from the hard-line Milli Görüş, or “National View”, wing of the Turkish Islamist Movement. In common with several other high-profile members of the Erdoğan regime, Gül joined the Justice and Development Party (AKP) relatively late – in Gül’s case in 2012, a decade after the party first took office. Previously he had served in a succession of small Islamist parties which were critical of Erdoğan.
Gül’s appointment as Justice Minister in July 2017 came after the ministry had been gutted by Erdoğan’s purges of alleged members of the Gülen Movement. As elsewhere in the apparatus of state, some of those purged from the ministry were members or sympathizers of the movement but others were not – as accusations of Gülenist sympathies became the default pretext to purge anyone deemed insufficiently subservient to Erdoğan himself.
Gül is widely regarded as being close to the Sunni Muslim religious brotherhoods known as the tariqah – especially the Naqshbandi (Nakşibendi in Turkish), whose various branches constitute the largest and most influential tariqah network in Turkey. As he sought to fill the gaps in the Justice Ministry left by the purges of actual and alleged Gülenists, Gül was accused of favoring individuals with links to the tariqah. However, even though he was undoubtedly ideologically driven, Gül also strove to preserve at least the appearance of the rule of law – even if the reality was often very different.
During his alliance with the movement, Erdoğan had enabled Gülenists to take control of large swathes of the judiciary and the police and acquire the power they then used to target the critics and opponents they shared with Erdoğan – including through the fabrication and planting of evidence, vicious defamation campaigns, and the illegal publication of illicit telephone taps and video recordings, which were often distorted to support absurd conspiracy theories. After their alliance finally collapsed in late 2013, the Gülenists launched a similar campaign to try to discredit Erdoğan, including the publication of illicit telephone taps and video recordings involving Erdoğan and his close associates.
Gül’s attempts to preserve a semblance of the rule of law brought him into conflict with other elements in the regime, including Süleyman Soylu, the combative Interior Minister, and Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s ambitious son-in-law – the leading, though far from only, protagonists in the struggle for power in the shadow of Erdoğan’s leadership. Although he ultimately controls the judicial system, and frequently weaponizes this control against his critics and opponents, Erdoğan is usually anxious to preserve a façade of legitimacy. This has been made easier by the willingness of members of the judiciary not only to accede to requests from the presidential palace but, much more frequently, to anticipate them by taking action of which they believe Erdoğan would approve – thus obviating the need for Erdoğan to explicitly, and potentially even publicly, impose his will.
Although both exert considerably influence within the apparatus of state, neither Soylu nor Albayrak can match Erdoğan’s formal or informal authority. During Gül’s tenure as Justice Minister, Soylu and Albayrak were often frustrated both by his embedding of tariqah members in the judiciary, which created clusters of officials whom they could not control, and his insistence on maintaining a semblance of the rule of law – particularly when the result was to frustrate their pursuit of their own interests.
There were even occasions when the tensions between Gül and Soylu went public. In January 2021, Soylu took to twitter to lambast the judiciary for ordering the release from custody of an individual who had insulted his sick mother. Without naming Soylu directly, Gül issued a public rebuke, publicly declaring: “I am calling on those who sit down at a keyboard and every day give me orders on social media to make arrests: Turkey is a state governed by the rule of law.”
In November 2021, while addressing a meeting of elected neighborhood representatives, or “muhtars,” Soylu told the participants to demolish any derelict buildings in their neighborhoods and called on the courts to then approve their actions. This time Gül was more direct, publicly noting that, in a state governed by the rule of law, the actions of elected officials are governed by the law, not vice versa.
In 2019, pro-Albayrak journalists on the Sabah newspaper unsuccessfully tried to smear Gül by accusing him of appointing Gülenists to influential positions in the Justice Ministry. A more serious blow came in June 2021 when Erdoğan appointed Albayrak loyalists to key positions in the 13-member Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), which is chaired by the Justice Minister and oversees the judicial system.
However, the breaking point appears to have come in January 2022. During his tenure as Justice Minister, Gül had repeatedly condemned the methods previously used by Gülenists in the judiciary and the police to target their opponents. On January 24, as Istanbul became blanketed by an unusually heavy snowfall, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the city’s mayor and a potential rival to Erdoğan in the 2023 presidential election, took a short break from coordinating the city’s emergency response units to attend a short, pre-arranged business lunch with the British ambassador. On January 25, Soylu travelled from Ankara to Istanbul, as the government-controlled media stepped up a defamation campaign against İmamoğlu, claiming that the Istanbul municipality had failed to respond adequately to the heavy snow. On January 26, footage from the Interior Ministry’s secure system of surveillance cameras – known as Mobile Electronic System Integration (MOBESE) – showing İmamoğlu travelling to the restaurant to meet the British ambassador was leaked to the government-controlled media. This is a crime under Turkish law. Gül resigned three days later.
IMPLICATIONS: Bozdağ is a compliant AKP stalwart. During Erdoğan’s alliance with the Gülen Movement, Bozdağ was frequently lavish in his praise of its founder, Fethullah Gülen, and excoriated its critics and opponents. But, when the alliance publicly collapsed in December 2013, Erdoğan appointed Bozdağ as Justice Minister to oversee the first round of purges of alleged Gülenists from the apparatus of state. Bozdağ stepped down in the run-up to the June 2015 general election, when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. But he was reappointed Justice Minister after the AKP won fresh elections in November 2015 and oversaw the second phase of Erdoğan’s campaign against the Gülenists – including the movement being formally outlawed in May 2016, the still largely unexplained failed coup attempt of July 2016, which the regime has blamed on the Gülenists, and the brutal crackdown under the subsequent State of Emergency. There thus appears little prospect of Bozdağ prioritizing the rule of law over the interests of Erdoğan and his close associates.
Gül’s departure is undoubtedly a major boost for Albayrak. Since his ignominious resignation as Finance and Treasury Minister in November 2020, after squandering the Central Bank’s reserves in a futile attempt to support the ailing Turkish Lira, Albayrak has adopted a deliberately low public profile. But his family connection has ensured that he has retained access to Erdoğan as part of his inner circle. After a period of quiescence immediately following his resignation, through 2021 Albayrak and his supporters gradually became more active behind the scenes. On December 2, 2021, one of Albayrak’s acolytes, Nureddin Nebati was appointed Finance and Treasury Minister to replace the respected Lütfi Elvan, who had taken over the post after Albayrak’s resignation. Nebati’s limited experience and knowledge of economics means that economic policy is now being formulated by Albayrak and his associates within parameters set by Erdoğan.
Initially at least, Gül’s resignation is also positive for Soylu. However, although Bozdağ is unlikely to decide to defy Soylu, his subservience to Erdoğan means that there is a higher risk that any future disagreement between Soylu and the Justice Ministry will pit Soylu against Erdoğan himself. Despite Soylu’s repeated public professions of fealty, his relationship with Erdoğan has often been strained – and Soylu lacks the easy access to Erdoğan enjoyed by Albayrak. Opposition to Gül was one of the few issues on which Albayrak and Soylu agreed. Now that Gül has gone, the rivalry between Albayrak and Soylu is likely to intensify.
In addition, Erdoğan is aware that, when it comes to the current high-profile members of his regime, Soylu is widely regarded as the strongest candidate to succeed him. Yet, unlike Albayrak, whom he was once grooming as his heir apparent, Erdoğan cannot be certain that – once he is no longer president -- Soylu will protect him and his close associates from prosecution for corruption and abuse of office.
But not only has Soylu been effective in suppressing the regime’s critics and opponents but his uncompromising policies and his willingness to appoint hard-line Turkish nationalists to key positions, especially in the police, have endeared him to the AKP’s electoral partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which also shared Soylu’s frustration at Gül’s reluctance to endorse egregious violations of the law in pursuit of the regime’s perceived enemies.
Although Erdoğan’s popular support is in long-term decline, opinion polls suggest that it is far from certain that he will lose the next presidential election and that much will depend on the identity of his main rival. However, they also leave little doubt that, without the MHP, the AKP would fall well short of securing a parliamentary majority on its own. The MHP would also be electorally weaker on its own. In addition, even if its influence is less than is sometimes supposed, its alliance with the AKP gives the MHP a voice in discussions about the formulation of policy. Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s awareness of the potential risks of antagonizing the MHP, and jeopardizing the AKP-MHP alliance, is another factor in his reluctance to marginalize Soylu.
CONCLUSIONS: Networks of personal connections have always played an important role in Turkish politics. However, in the past, they tended to be woven around and through institutional structures. But these structures have been severely eroded by the process of deinstitutionalization that has accompanied Erdoğan’s increasing concentration of de facto political power in his own hands, particularly since the transition to a sui generis executive presidency in July 2018. The result has been close to caricature – with Erdoğan now sequestered in a sprawling presidential palace on the edge of Ankara, engulfed by sycophants and his own personality cult and increasingly distanced from the everyday realities of the country he rules.
The combination of Erdoğan’s isolation and the process of institutional deliquescence has allowed individuals to extend the influence of their networks of personal connections well beyond a specific bureaucratic fiefdom into other areas of the state apparatus – and fed a growing sense of impunity amongst those involved.
Corruption has long been a major problem across the political spectrum in Turkey. Nor is it unusual for regimes to become more corrupt the longer they remain in power. But what has been striking in recent years is not just how widespread corruption has become but how flagrant. Nor is it just a matter of kickbacks and the distribution of state funds to favored individuals. For example, it is an open secret that individuals with close ties to leading members of the regime are involved in narcotics trafficking. In this context, the departure of a Justice Minister who was trying to maintain at least the appearance of the rule of law is cause for concern that the situation could become even worse.
Gareth Jenkins is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center
Photo credit: Abdülhamit Gül official Twitter account