Speaking in Doha over the weekend, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a crowd that Turkish President Recep Erdogan and his American counterpart, Donald Trump were working together to return the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. According to Cavusoglu, this information was told to Erdogan during the recent G20 summit in Argentina.
In his address, Cavusoglu told the crowd in Qatar that “Trump told Erdogan they were working on extraditing (Fethullah) Gulen and other people,” and that he personally saw “a credible probe by the FBI on how the Gulen organization avoids taxes.” While there is a chance some of this is possibly happening, there are also reasons to believe Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are playing up the intensity of Trump’s concern about returning Gulen.
Elections on the horizon
As it always feels to be the case in Turkey, there are elections in the near future which means it is campaign season. This time it is only municipal elections but much like every campaign season, this means Erdogan is deploying every nationalist weapon in his arsenal.
Nationalist rhetoric has become more vital to Erdogan in each successive election he and the AKP have faced and this time is no different. In fact, this time it seems as if Erdogan may actually end up losing some support to his own electoral coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the establishment opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), the secular nationalist party of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The MHP and the AKP only joined forces for the last Presidential election after Meral Aksener broke from the Nationalist party to start the Iyi Party (“Good Party” in English) and won 40 seats in parliament. The MHP did agree to run with the AKP again in next years municipal elections but only after initially threatening to go their own way over a couple of key irreconcilable policy goals.
Related: Turkish Local Elections: Will Irreconcilable Differences End Erdogan’s Coalition?
This and other crises for Erdogan play a large role in his reasoning for deploying the specter of Gulen. Most Turkish nationalists that Erdogan allows to exist in Turkey’s electoral system don’t like the cleric. Both the MHP and more so the CHP are militantly secular which makes them distrust Gulen’s brand of Islam and both parties nationalism causes them to distrust the expat even more for being located in the US (a generally unpopular country among Turks). This is likely a big motivation behind the recent statements by Turkey that Gulen is on the verge of being expelled from Pennsylvania.
Saying Gulen will be returned also helps Erdogan’s attempts to curb Turkey’s current economic woes by painting a picture of improving relations with the US even as Turkey is facing possible sanctions from Washington. However, even with Turkey’s recent return of a US Pastor, the Turkish-American relationship is still in bad shape.
There are quite a few issues you can point to at this very moment that illustrates that, despite Ankara’s best attempts, there are just things they can not get Washington to agree to. One big row between the two NATO allies is over the status of the US-backed Kurdish-led militias in northern Syria.
Currently, Turkey is threatening to launch a new incursion into northeast Syria and, with the help of Salafi rebels, remove the “Kurdish threat” on the border. Obviously, some of the motivations behind this operation are also tied to Erdogan’s election but the fact that he is publicly feuding with Trump over the Kurds doesn’t send a strong message that US-Turkish relations are in good shape.
There is also the Jamal Khashoggi affair bogging down US-Turkey relations, despite the fact that it was Turkey that leaked all the information about the journalist’s murder. While this information has seemingly had an impact on the US Senate, which voted to end US support for the Saudi war on Yemen and put Turkey on a stronger regional footing, it still doesn’t seem to have changed Donald Trump’s mind about his friends in Riyadh.
Related: Khashoggi Effect: Erdogan Inverts the Paradigm, whilst Gulf & Allies Sink in Quagmire
Despite Erdogan’s best effort to sabotage the Saudis and re-ingratiate himself with the Trump by blasting details of the Khashoggi case all over western media Trump has openly said he values the Saudi business relationship over a dead journalist. This seems to signal that Erdogan’s gamble in exposing the Saudis hasn’t paid off as much as he hoped.
But all of these things do still serve Erdogan’s agenda at home. Maybe the US isn’t listening but when he bashes the Saudis, Kurds, Gülen or a host of other enemies, the nationalists in turkey are listening.
Currently, Turkey’s economy is going through an incredibly bad slump, with the lira valued at .19 USD, only about five cents up from its recent record low. Erdogan used to use public spending and big infrastructure projects to entice voters (this was much of his strategy back in his time as mayor of Istanbul) but with state credit drying up these kinds of promises don’t work right now.
One good way to distract from the state of the Turkish economy is for Erdogan to say grandiose things in order to turn out his base. Sometimes Erdogan uses things like Kurdish threats or calling out Israel to endear himself voters, but Gülen is a classic go-to since the failed coup in 2016.
Related: Why Recep Erdogan Sometimes Says Cool Things
Making international public statements about extraditing the cleric is only one part of the Gülen toolbox, however, but the real threat is to alleged “Gulenists” in Turkey. The world may see Erdogan’s propaganda about Gülen himself but at home the story is much more serious as Erdogan locks up supposed members of FETO nearly every day and blasts the images through the state-run or AKP-allied press along with stories blaming Gulen followers for every bad policy decision in Turkey (sometimes even with magic).
It’s impossible to say if Trump is actually looking to extradite Gulen or not but one thing that is certain is that the AKP have a history of just saying whatever is the most beneficial to them at any given time. Erdogan is a leader who has literally said “Turkey is in Syria to topple [Syria President Bashar] Assad” a day after conceding that Assad would remain. If pressed on these kind of statements the AKP usually claims they’re only for domestic consumption. That claim actually holds up because anyone watching Turkish politics from the outside can see most of Erdogan’s narrative is fantasy.