Government's Witch Hunters Turn Fire Against Each Other

A group of IHH members and Mavi Marmara activists release a press statement in front of Istanbul courthouse on Friday.
A group of IHH members and Mavi Marmara activists release a press statement in front of Istanbul courthouse on Friday.

For years, Cem Kucuk made a career for leading a McCarthy-like witch-hunt on TVs. He won many enemies as he turned many lives upside down. As recently as two weeks ago, his social media campaign against judges who ruled to release 21 journalists paved the way for suspension of those judges.

Now he has found himself at the crosshair of public rage, his former colleagues, and allies; and became the target of a weapon he mastered — random finger-pointing against perceived enemies, and anyone who crossed his path.

The unconvincing and narrow victory in referendum unleashed a series of turf wars among AKP’s core elites, internet trolls, and loyal journalists as they have turned their fire against each other. Turkish media is abuzz with the talk of a new purge wave, this time within the ruling party, to reboot the battered AKP whose hold on power faces its biggest legitimacy test since it came to power in 2002.

The party has suddenly plunged into a blame game, a vicious cycle of score-settling among its members, intra-party feuding among towering figures, jostling for political power to have the ear of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Cem Kucuk, Turkish McCarthy who turned dozens of people’s lives into nightmares by championing witch-hunt live on TV, called the first shot.

During a program on pro-government A Haber TV channel earlier this week, Mr. Kucuk attacked the activists linked with the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) who organized a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010. At least 9 Turkish citizens were killed in a botched attack by Israeli commandos on Mavi Marmara ship.

Kucuk portrayed activists as radical Islamists and flotilla organizers of Mavi Marmara as maniacs. He urged President Erdogan to break with these ‘radical factions’ within AKP. He also called for normalization of ties with the Western countries, most notably with the U.S.

His verbal tirades produced a firestorm, and IHH members in 50 provinces filed lawsuits to courts against him. His targeting of Mavi Marmara activists marked a tipping point for many who have growingly exasperated with his unhinged style, his egregious remarks portraying any shred of criticism as treason and betrayal to the ‘Chief’, in other words, President Erdogan.

Yeni Akit ran a headline, lambasting him. “We Found The Crypto-Zionist Among Us. Scandal Remarks For Mavi Marmara,” said Yeni Akit, a flagship of Islamist press.

The story hit him hard, accusing of Mr. Kucuk of being a puppet of Israel. Additionally, TimeTurk, Haksoz, and all other Islamist and pro-government media outlets unleashed a barrage of rage against Mr. Kucuk, while another Erdogan loyalist Cemil Barlas closed ranks around his fellow friend, swooped back to defend him.

Mavi Marmara represents a symbol of resistance for Turkey’s Islamist activists against Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians in Gaza enclave. Every year in late May and early June, they mark the day when their compatriots were killed by Israeli Navy forces while they were set to breach Israeli blockade. Any attempt to criticize the mission of activists is certainly bound to spark a fierce backlash.

The clash of narratives rooting to find out the chief cause of unsatisfying referendum result, a slim margin victory with 51.3 percent, has been discernible among the pro-government folk. Calls for a radical overhaul to restructure AKP have grown louder.

Sibel Eraslan, a stalwart Islamist figure championing pious women’s rights and an Erdogan loyalist, offered her own version of purge list to AKP administration for a complete reshuffling. The AKP must return to its origins, get rid of political opportunists and careerists who, according to her, used the party as a stepping stone to climb the ladders in politics quickly.

Opportunists, converts, surrogates, pragmatist businessmen who jumped on AKP wagon to make fortunes through AKP patronage networks, sycophant journalists, crypto-Gulenists and career politicians, as her list details, are among those to be purged.

Salih Tuna and Ismail Kilicarslan from pro-government Yeni Safak joined the debate, targeting moderate AKP figures who defend a consensus with opponents.

AKP lawmaker Metin Metiner attacked former President Abdullah Gul and former Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc, both founding fathers of the party, after the referendum. “They have no place in our heart,” he told media. Mr. Arinc, who was labeled as the conscious of the party before his not-too-subtle break with President Erdogan, voiced criticism for the government’s illiberal policies on many occasions.

While the July 15 coup attempt silenced many critics within the party, the creeping authoritarianism and undemocratic state of emergency measures that deprived 135,000 officials of their jobs fuels a new breeding ground for intra-party criticism.

The reason why former President Gul became a target for Erdogan loyalists and AKP hawks was his known opposition to the presidential system. Journalist Fehmi Koru, a close associate of former President Gul, previously said that Mr. Gul would vote No in the referendum.

President Erdogan and his predecessor represent two different personalities; one is a dominant, strongman figure while the former is a mild, moderate and engaging politician. Though he was circumspect, avoided publicly challenging Mr. Erdogan, the former president of Turkey did not give his blessing for the constitutional amendment granting sweeping powers to Mr. Erdogan.

When asked about the a la Turca presidential system, he conspicuously dismissed the proposed version as lacking checks and balances system. He said if there was to be a presidential system, it should be similar to an American one with clearly defined separation of powers.

Ominous signs of a new purge loom large over the party. In aftermath of the coup, the government’s troll army in social and mainstream media, rumpled Islamist firebrands, agitators who sought to secure a spot in high-esteem of the Sultan had become front fighters of a political witch-hunt against perceived enemies, critics of every social conviction, and non-loyalist public servants in bureaucracy. The very kind of witch-hunt they promoted and spearheaded is poised to haunt them now.

This piece was originally published on The Globe Post

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