Turkey: Erdogan and the “deep state”

For over two months now, the Turkish state and president Erdogan's regime have faced attacks from a seemingly unlikely source. Sedat Peker, a notorious mafia boss in exile, with a long record of criminal activity and of intriguingly short jail sentences, has released a video almost every Sunday for the past two months in which he claims to expose the details of connections between important AKP officials, the Turkish state, and organised crime.

These videos, some of which are longer than one hour, are getting increasing exposure, with an audience of over 10 million people now watching them every week. As time has gone on, Peker has seemingly become increasingly confident in exposing more and more details.

The regime exposed

Peker has made many accusations against a whole host of public figures of the AKP regime and their family members. In doing so, he has painted a picture of these people that is a very far cry from the “respectable” image they like to portray in the media. For example, Peker has accused Erkan Yıldırım – son of Binali Yıldırım, the last prime minister and vice-chairman of the AKP, as well as a very close associate of president Erdogan – of trafficking huge quantities of drugs from Columbia to Turkey via Panama. Peker claims that because smuggling from Colombia was becoming harder (4.9 tons of cocaine were seized in June 2020), Yıldırım went to Venezuela at the beginning of the year to strike a deal for a new smuggling route.

Another accusation concerned Turkish state and organised crime involvement in the Syrian civil war. Peker details how a private security company, founded by one of Erdogan’s former military advisers, supplied weapons to jihadi outfits like the al Nusra front, which was the Syrian chapter of Al Qaida. The intelligence apparatus helped hide the weapons under the guise of “humanitarian supplies”.

Peker Image fair usePeker has made many accusations against a whole host of public figures of the AKP regime and their family members, airing the regime's dirty laundry in public / Image: fair use

But his main target is the interior minister, Süleyman Soylu. The reason for that is simple and Peker has openly stated why it forms the purpose of his whole crusade: he claims there was a deal between Peker and Soylu, but that the latter did not adhere to it. On the contrary, he ordered police raids on Pekers ‘ventures’, and even on the house where his wife and children live.

Soylu, who only joined the AKP in 2012, but who has shown the zeal of many a late convert, is responsible for much of the repression against oppositionists in recent years. He was already standing on shaky ground before Peker began releasing his videos.

In April, he almost fell out of favour over a thoroughly mishandled lockdown where people were only given two hours to buy needed groceries following the announcement of a curfew. Experts say the ensuing chaos at supermarkets and shops could have thrown the battle against the virus back by weeks.

Soylu, despite announcing earlier that all these measures had the approval of Erdogan, took full blame and offered his resignation. But one hand washes the other, and Erdogan, to show his gratitude at being shielded from accusations of wrongdoing, refused to replace Soylu. Peker now says that he was the one organising an online solidarity campaign for Soylu behind the scenes.

But apparently, the two fell out not long later. In the first of his videos, Peker was still somewhat careful not to attack Soylu directly, referring to him as his “return ticket to Turkey”. But Soylu and the ministry of interior came out strongly in condemnation of Peker, calling his campaign the “activity of organised crime against the security forces and the state”.

Soylu also filed a lawsuit against Peker. With the bridges between the two increasingly burnt, Peker has become more direct in his attacks. Now he is even threatening to implicate Erdogan himself.

Although Peker hasn’t yet provided any direct evidence for his accusations, various polls indicate that the majority, and even as many as 75 percent of people in Turkey believe that what he says is true. While it might seem unremarkable that the majority of opposition supporters believe these accusations, even one third of AKP voters believe them. This speaks volumes about how shallow the social base of Erdogan’s regime has become in recent years.

The state

That so many people believe these accusations is easy to explain: such deep links between organised crime, politics and the state apparatus are simply ‘how it is done’ in Turkey. Bourgeois “democracy” and the “rule of law” have always been a thin veneer – one that has been repeatedly scratched away by military coups.

But even in “normal” times, Turkish politics has always been marked by the direct involvement of the army and of criminal-fascist gangs. Such gangs include the likes of the ‘Grey Wolves’, connected to the ultra-nationalist MHP party, which were responsible for the murder of thousands of left-wing and labour movement activists from the ‘60s onwards. Right-wing militias like the so-called ‘Village Guards’ have been propped up by the Turkish state against the Kurdish insurrection.

All of these dubious connections were first brought to the fore (officially) in 1996, following a car accident in the small town of Susurluk. The deputy police chief of Istanbul, along with mafia boss and leading member of the Grey Wolves, Abdullah Çatlı, died in the crash, while Sedat Edip Bucak, a major landlord, leader of the Village Guards and MP of a conservative party, was seriously wounded.

The three men were also found to have with them in the car several weapons with silencers, drugs, and thousands of dollars in cash. This produced a national scandal at the time, which forced the then minister of interior Mehmet Ağar to resign among others, because a forged passport in the name of Çatlı and personally signed by Ağar was also found in the car.

Mehmet Ağar has also been attacked by Peker in his recent videos, and has become one of the scandal’s first victims. In 2019, charges against him and others for unresolved murders dating back to the 1990s were dismissed. Only as of May, on the back of Peker’s accusations, has the case been reopened.

Peker himself seems to have had very good connections with ultra-nationalist criminal circles for a very long time. At a commemoration for the deceased Çatlı, Peker called the latter his “big brother”, and “the master of all of us”. Already in 1998, he voluntarily handed himself over to the authorities after it was reported that a government minister visited him in Romania. He was tried, among other things, for protection racketeering,coercion, and incitement to murder. In the end, Peker only went to jail for a few months, even though the prosecutor had demanded seven-and-a-half years.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels summarised the essence of the modern capitalist state: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” To understand the specific role the state apparatus plays in a country, it is not enough to look at the surface appearance of its ideological or institutional character. We must understand the underlying economic forces that underpin and determine the class character of the state.

The Turkish bourgeoisie, in a country where capitalist development started late, has always been in a weak position, especially as against the relatively strong domestic working class with its revolutionary traditions. It has thus been forced to use direct repression against the masses on a regular basis. That has given the state apparatus a certain degree of independence and relative strength in society.

Because of its weakness, a big section of the bourgeoisie relies on a combination of shady businesses, criminal activity, speculation and thuggery to maintain their flow of profits. For such a “business model” to work, they depend upon having a very close connection to the state.

The Turkish ultra-nationalist movement, with the MHP at its core, has generally been the most important political representative of that stratum, although to put it bluntly, all Turkish bourgeois are gangsters to one degree or another. It has succeeded in gathering a significant layer of the petty bourgeoisie and backward layers of the working class behind it with its chauvinist scapegoating, especially against the Kurds.

In times of crisis, the more “respectable” section of the bourgeoisie in Turkey, represented by the Kemalist republican-nationalist tradition, have tolerated or even encouraged them, as they needed the fascist gangs and assassins of the ultra-nationalists to help deal with a powerful working class.

In the 1970s, this led to a situation where the Grey Wolves could claim that their intelligence network was better than any of the official state agencies. In the 1980s and even earlier, another secret intelligence agency was formed, JİTEM (run by the gendarmerie), which was used to torture and kill political opponents, although its existence was denied until 2005.

Erdogan’s connections to the “deep state”

The Islamic-conservative AKP and Erdogan represent another (junior) wing of the bourgeoisie, which was based mainly in Anatolia. This wing of the ruling class had always been in conflict with the dominating Kemalists.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan Image Mikhail KlimentyevErdogan's manoeuvres have brought him closer to the ultra-nationalists and elements of the 'deep state' in order to oppose rising opposition from the masses / Image: Mikhail Klimentyev

Erdogan, who was in conflict with the Kemalists already as the mayor of Istanbul, was therefore able to present himself as a clean ‘outsider’, and a fighter against the economic turmoil and political corruption of the 1990s. In reality, that was not really true: although the Islamic-conservative wing of the bourgeoisie had a weaker position than the Kemalists, it had always played an important role as a reserve of reaction, and for that reason also had links in the state apparatus. Nonetheless, by presenting himself as a ‘fresh face’ after the chaos of the 1990s, Erdogan was able to win the elections in 2002.

But this also positioned him against the traditionally powerful players of the Kemalist bourgeoisie, the army and big parts of the ‘deep state’. In the 2000s, this was the main opposition Erdogan faced, with rumours of coups and staged mass demonstrations on a number of occasions, such as in 2003 and 2007.

The so-called Ergenekon trial, which lasted from 2007 to 2013, against an alleged ultra-nationalist conspiracy, with the ex-army chief at its head, was part of this power struggle. It should be noted that Sedat Peker was one of the accused in that trial, and that he was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2013. Erdogan was able to ride this struggle out by leaning on a section of the masses, on the basis of an unprecedented economic boom as well as by making concessions to the Kurds.

But after the economy began to falter and opposition from the masses grew, Erdogan had to refocus his efforts. The entry of the masses on the scene – particularly the Gezi Park Uprising, beginning in May of 2013, when millions of people hit the streets – changed everything and shook the regime to its core.

This led to splits on the top. In December of 2013, a big investigation was launched into corruption of leading members of the AKP, in which 52 people were arrested. This was the beginning of Erdogan’s falling out with the powerful Islamic Gülen movement, which had supported him up until that point, but which was likely behind the arrests. This led first to a purge of Gülen supporters from the police, and later, after the coup attempt of 2016, from the state apparatus as a whole.

Newfound friends

Erdogan was in desperate need of political allies and a basis in society. He needed more “boots on the ground” against the masses, and a firmer grip on the state apparatus. He came to the only conclusion possible: he needed to reconcile with the ultra-nationalists and the parts of the “deep state” he was in conflict with before.

This meant that a number of convicts from the Ergenekon trial, including Peker, were released only a few months after the verdict. In 2016, the whole case was declared void by the supreme court because of “fabricated, lacking and illegally obtained evidence”, which, knowing the history of the Turkish state, is certainly hard to argue against.

As allies for Erdogan, the ultra-nationalists also had other advantages. On the one hand, as we explained, they need the state apparatus to secure their income, either to guarantee a blind eye is turned to their schemes, or as a direct source of jobs and positions. There was therefore already ample basis for such an alliance, which expressed itself in a weakening of the secularism that previously dominated the ultra-nationalist movement. ‘Islamic nationalism’ was increasingly strengthened.

On the other hand, Erdogan completely shifted his position on the Kurdish question and struck a deal with the ultra-nationalists.

Apart from the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, the dynamics of the civil war in Syria also forced a shift in Erdogan’s position. There, the struggle for national liberation by the PKK’s sister party, the PYD, were faced with jihadist militias propped up by Erdogan. The situation finally snapped. In 2014, the so-called Islamic State, with the barely concealed support of the Turkish state, attacked the town Kobanê. The heroic resistance of the YPG militia inspired millions of Kurds in Turkey to rise up, with the Kurdish movement, following the founding of the HDP, becoming the focal point of left-wing workers and youth in the whole of Turkey. A Kurdish movement in open opposition to Erdogan, linking up with the Turkish left, represented a grave danger for Erdogan's regime. He desperately needed to divide Turkish society on national lines through war.

A series of bloody terror attacks gave Erdogan the pretext to renew the civil war and to try and stabilise the basis for an alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP. But the pressure to stay in opposition to Erdogan, despite the huge perks of power, caused a major split in the ultra-nationalist camp, with the IYI party of Meral Akşener forming out of this split.

In this environment, Peker thrived. That he and Erdogan are personally familiar with each other has been well known for quite some time. There are photos of the two speaking at the wedding of a mutual friend. Politically, the two have also become close in recent years. In January 2016, following the renewed offensive of the Turkish army against the Kurds, over a thousand academics signed a declaration against the war and appealed to restart negotiations. Peker publicly stated that he “will shower in the blood” of these people. A court case focusing on those statements was dropped on the grounds of “the right to free speech”. The irony of this at a time when thousands of people are simultaneously being tried for “insulting the president” is staggering.

Peker’s power grew so much that, after the coup attempt of 2016, the American right-wing political analyst Michael Rubin wrote about the possibility of the a falling out with Erdogan in the future: “Even if Peker would never want to hold the formal reins of state, he has enough connections to veteran Turkish politicians to place a figurehead in the presidential palace. Erdoğan may believe he is sultan but, in reality, he may already be a dead man walking.”

The reactionaries brawl, but the masses will answer

It is clear that the whole spectacle is a case of reactionary in-fighting and of two partners in crime falling out. If Peker has not attacked Erdogan directly up until this point, it is not because Erdogan stands behind him in a conspiratorial manner, as some on the left suggest.

Peker has refrained from attacking Erdogan because he is still hoping for a deal, as his position in exile is clearly a very weak one. But he seems determined not to go down without a fight when the deal he wants proves not to be forthcoming. In reality, he has shown the same all-or-nothing mentality as Erdogan in his fight for survival.

Only time will tell whether he will go to the end. But in the process of fighting for survival, he is helping to discredit the regime and of the whole state apparatus, depriving it of the little support it as yet continues to enjoy.

Liberals and reformists bemoan the state of affairs in Turkey and cry for reform, more accountability and the ‘rule of law’. As Marxists, we are staunch enemies of all reactionaries, and will always be the most determined fighters against state repression, whilst explaining that there is no chance of real reform. The ‘deep state’, and all these reactionary characters, from Peker to Erdogan, are only a reflection of the dead end that Turkish capitalism finds itself in.

As such, the only way forward is an uprising of the masses along the lines of 2013, but on a higher level. Today, support for the regime has been thoroughly spent through years of crisis and mismanagement. This sentiment pervades the working class, which has to cope with inflation, joblessness and poverty.

The Kurdish left also is in opposition to the regime today, which is moving to outlaw the HDP and has jailed its main leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, for five years. The clock is ticking for Erdogan. A revolutionary explosion is just a matter of time. It is the task of the revolutionary workers and youth in Turkey to assist this process by building a strong Marxist organisation, which can lead the masses to victory, not only against Erdogan and his reactionary rabble, but against the whole capitalist system.

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