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State-mafia politics and the reconfiguration of the ruling bloc in Turkey



Zozan Baran,

[Translate to en:] Sedat Peker
Sedat Peker in one of his YouTube videos. Photo: Youtube/REIS SEDAT PEKER

Turkey is currently being rocked by confessions from a former ally of the AKP government. Sedat Peker, who is one of the top figures of the mafia and fascist movement in Turkey, started to post videos on YouTube in which he revealed a conspiracy that involves politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats.

Among the allegations are drug trafficking, money laundering, and bribery that goes as far as to Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu. Peker also accused the former Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar of being involved in drug trafficking, torture, and the disappearance of left-wing and Kurdish activists since the 1990s. Moreover, he shed light on political murders such as the assassination of journalists Uğur Mumcu and Kutlu Adalı.

Zozan Baran is an activist and independent scholar of Kurdish descent from Turkey. She obtained her BA from Boğaziçi University’s Political Science Department and her MA from the Free University of Berlin’s Sociology Department. She currently resides in Berlin and writes on political regimes and movements from a comparative perspective.

Some of the schemes he revealed were open secrets that were investigated and reported on by journalists and scholars. However, their voices were heard mostly by a limited number of people. When Peker started talking, many started listening, because his connections and loyalty to the nationalist camp make him a more intriguing figure. Still, these are notoriously impenetrable relations, and as such we might only know the tip of the iceberg. Although hard to grasp, the extent of the crimes shows how Turkey is corrupted from inside.

It is true that state-mafia relations are not new. However, their scope has never been as deep as it is today. Not only Peker’s videos, but also the semi-open power war within different cliques in the “Cumhur” [1] coalition reveals the extent of corruption and illegality. Incorporating this war into our analysis might shed more light on why Peker started these confessions. Why did a close ally and untouchable turn into a foe? The answer to this question is closely related with how the AKP’s power bloc is divided between sometimes rival groups whose only common feature is being on the right side of the political spectrum.

Peker incited anger and fear among the opposition in 2015 and 2016 when he promised to “shed their blood”. His words targeted the “Academics for Peace” [2] and the opposition in general. But his relationship with the government was not always so warm. In 2005, he was arrested due to his criminal record and mafia relations. In 2007, he was among the accused in the Ergenekon trials. [3] When he was released in 2014, he signalled a rapprochement with the AKP in his first public statement: “In the last ten years, I followed the positive developments in our country, and personally I believe I can adjust to the change.” Yet, for many complex reasons, it seems that the government withdrew its support for Peker last year and opened an investigation. One possibility is that Peker is being replaced by another mafia boss, inciting further internal conflicts.

Due to the secrecy around such issues, it is likely that we will not know the full scope of events any time soon. It should be kept in mind that despite his claims, Peker might be keeping more to himself than he reveals. While he targets many high-ranking politicians, bureaucrats, and businesspeople, he carefully spares Erdogan and his family. Still, the Peker case not only tells us about the old story of mafia-state relations, but also illustrates the results of 20 years of AKP government and its political operations. In that sense, perhaps the story is more new than old.

From the beginning, the AKP as a political party and a governing bloc has consisted of several groups and factions. Erdogan and his friends’ first allies were Gülenists, whose deep connections within the state apparatus, including the secret service, police, and the military, helped the AKP to dismantle its then-political rivals, the Kemalists. This cooperation did not last forever, as the parties grew anxious over each other’s increasing power. As this cooperation collapsed and the Kurdish “opening” was not politically profitable for Erdogan’s party anymore, the AKP shifted its orientation to the MHP and its offshoots within the mafia and the state.

Peker’s rise and fall is closely related to this shift in the power block. In the current situation, it can be said that the Cumhur coalition consists of three groups: a group of “intellectuals” led by former Finance Minister Albayrak and several journalists known as Pelikancılar, the former National Outlook cadres and other Islamist groups, and the MHP and its offshoots. Peker’s first videos targeted the former group and some from the third. But because friends and foes shift so quickly and easily here, it is hard to grasp it in its entirety. But one thing is clear: in a power bloc that is politically divided but also used to sharing political and economic resources without transparency or accountability, conflicts and wars are inevitable.

What options does the Left have under these conditions? Given the damage that was done over the last decade, we should prioritize clean and transparent political conduct. The state-mafia relations date back to the 1970s, the heyday of anticommunist hysteria, which is the main source of this relationship. This also points to the fact that although the AKP holds the main responsibility, these crimes reach far beyond them. Therefore, accountability should be demanded not only from AKP politicians but everyone involved. This is also the only way for Turkey to heal its wounds and foster a democratic political culture.

[1] Turkey’s current governing coalition. The Turkish election law was changed in 2018, before the national election, to allow electoral coalitions. Many interpreted this as an AKP attempt to remain in power by building a coalition with the nationalist National Action Party (MHP), as the party feared losing the majority’s support and not being able to form a government on its own (as happened in the June 2015 elections). Officially, the Cumhur coalition still consists of the AKP and the MHP. However, several legal and illegal groups close to both parties make the coalition more complex.

[2] A group of academics demanding a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question founded in 2012. Peker’s reason to target the group was a public statement, “We will not be a party to this conflict”, published by the group and signed by many more. It demanded the end of the human rights violations by the state in Kurdish cities.

[3] A legal case that began in 2007 and extended over years, through periods of arrests and new waves until 2014, when the case was officially closed with the public prosecutor concluding that such an organization may never have existed. After a public clash between the AKP and the secularist camp (consisting of the judiciary and the military at the time) over Abdullah Gül’s presidency, several anonymous sources revealed the existence of an ultra-nationalist, ultra-secularist deep state organization that aimed to overthrow the AKP government and throw Turkey into chaos. The evidence was a mixture of already-known facts about the existence of a Gladio-like deep state structure and some implemented or imaginary connections between disparate groups of people and organizations who opposed the power of the AKP. It actually extended from some ultra-nationalists to socialists. At the time, several public figures uttered suspicions that the AKP government and its ally, the Gülen movement, were using their power in the state to plant fake evidence and to get rid of their political enemies. Hence, information about the existence of a NATO-driven, Cold War-era deep state apparatus was manipulated by the AKP and its allies to dismantle their rivals.