Erdoğan v Gulen: power struggle comes full circle in Turkish soccer

James Dorsey
7 Min Read
James M Dorsey

Politics’ incestuous relationship with soccer came full circle this week with the mass resignation of executives from the Turkish football federation and the firing of scores of officials, including referees, as part of the government’s witch-hunt against followers of controversial Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen and other government critics.

Intended to facilitate the weeding out of any Gulen supporters, the executives tendered their resignations five years after the conflict between Gulen and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first erupted in a match-fixing scandal that masked a battle for control of Fenerbahçe SK, the political crown jewel of Turkish soccer. Two days following the executive resignations, the federation said that it had fired 94 other officials it linked to July’s failed military coup.

“Our federation deemed it necessary to dismiss 94 people, including regional and nationally-ranked referees and assistant referees, regional refereeing committee members, and national and regional observers,” the Turkish Football Federation said.

The resignations and dismissals coupled with a broader witch-hunt sparked by the failed 15 July military coup that has led to the arrest and/or dismissal of some 60,000 people, including thousands of public servants, allows Erdoğan to reassert control of soccer after five years of fans successfully resisting his efforts. Among those dismissed last month were 265 employees of the youth and sports ministry.

The president’s efforts to control soccer, similarly to his moves to build Turkey’s police into a force capable of counter-balancing the military, conjures up comparisons between the increasingly authoritarian state envisioned by Erdoğan and Arab autocrats who—distrustful of their militaries—built regimes reliant on security forces.

Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies are also rooted in modern Turkish history. The president is following in the footsteps of his role model, Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s first democratically elected president who, despite being a big landowner, also represented the country’s conservative and nationalist masses rather than its secular, Kemalist elite.

Bent on loosening secular Turkey’s strict control of religious expression, Menderes, like Erdoğan, increasingly cracked down on any opposition to his policies. Erdoğan’s over-reaching, harsh response to the failed coup stems from the fact that Menderes was ousted from office in a military coup in 1960 and executed a year later.

Arab autocrats like Erdoğan seek tight control of soccer, the most popular sport and expression of popular culture in their countries, owing to its mobilising potential in anti-government protests. Soccer fans played a key role in popular Arab revolts five years ago as well as the 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests in Turkey.

Followers of Gulen, whom Erdoğan blames for this month’s failed coup, first gave the president the opportunity to clean out the judiciary and police when prosecutors—who were believed to be loyal to the self-exiled preacher in 2013—charged members of the then prime minister’s cabinet and family with corruption. Erdoğan shut down the investigations by firing (or moving to less sensitive jobs) thousands of police officers, prosecutors, and other judicial personnel.

As a result, the police played a key role in cooperation with anti-coup protesters in defeating the coup attempt, bearing testimony to the degree to which Erdoğan had succeeded in countering Gulen’s influence on the police. Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim said a day after the attempt that 60 police officers had lost their lives foiling the coup.

The president reaffirmed this with an announcement this week that Turkey’s security forces were being reorganised in a way that they would enable them to exercise oversight over the military—despite reports of thousands of police officers, as well as 100 intelligence service employees having been dismissed since the failed coup.

Erdoğan signalled his confidence in the police months before the failed coup, promising to defend it against any renewed attempt by Gulen to infiltrate it again. “I call on all my police brothers: rest assured! The people, the state are behind you. Don’t worry about this. The president, the government, stands behind you. Be at ease… We all have to stand behind our police,” Erdoğan said at a police ceremony in April.

The failed coup, described by Erdoğan as a gift from God, has allowed him to fulfil a long-term goal of putting the military under civilian control, a pre-requisite for European Union membership, and to crush any criticism of his government. That is also likely to lead to a temporary neutralisation of militant soccer fans who in the last three years successfully resisted government attempts to identify them through electronic ticketing systems as well as efforts to enforce a ban on chanting political slogans in stadiums.

Turkey’s militant soccer fan groups although opposed to the coup were largely absent during the protests that helped thwart to it and that were largely populated by supporters of Erdoğan who often shouted religiously-inspired slogans.

The litmus test for Erdoğan could well be whether groups like Carsi—the storied support group of Istanbul’s Beşiktaş J.K. that prides itself on being against everything—remain on the sidelines or ultimately explore ways of countering what many of them see as Erdoğan’s efforts to exploit the failed attempt to advance his own power grab that started already prior to the military attempt to unseat him.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just publishedComparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

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James M Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg.
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