Even if his party manages to scrape by in Turkey’s upcoming municipal elections on March 30, Prime Minister Erdogan has already done irreparable harm to his brand.
It is hard to imagine how in any society a Prime Minister caught on tape firing journalists because he does not like their point of view or instructing television stations to stop the broadcasting of an opposition leader’s speech in parliament could survive. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of corruption allegations that have been leveled at this particular PM’s ministers, their families, and most critically at him and his own son.
Welcome to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. While he’s indirectly conceded the interference with the freedom of the press, the Prime Minister and his stalwarts have engaged in a scorched-earth strategy of blaming a vast conspiracy for the attacks against him. Never mind that ministers have lost their jobs and their sons have been arrested (along with a state-owned bank CEO). Never mind the millions of dollars worth of cash found in houses owned by all these figures, or the taped conversations leaked to the public, mainly through social media outlets, revealing that judicial investigations have been ongoing for sometime. Forget all that: It is not the alleged thieves, crooks, and their enablers who are at fault, but the accusers. So goes the logic in Erdogan’s Turkey. There’s nothing wrong with having millions of dollars and euros stashed at your home or office or elsewhere, and sweetheart deals with shady businessmen are perfectly okay. It’s questioning these practices that is the real threat to the nation.
At the heart of the conspiracy, it is claimed, is a “parallel state” led by Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive cleric who sought refuge in the United States in 1999 when he was persecuted by the then-dominant Turkish military establishment. Gulen and Erdogan had earlier formed an alliance against this common enemy. But now, with the military forced back into its barracks, they have turned on each other. For Erdogan and his supporters this vast conspiracy, instigated by Gulen and his presumed followers in the judiciary and the police force, is aided and abetted by a slew of villains. These include, Americans, Jews, Israel, Germans, neocons, CNN, Financial Times, a variety of international and domestic banks, the Council on Foreign Relations. Even the Queen of England, if you can believe it, has nothing better to do with her time than plot the downfall of the Turkish Prime Minister and his supporters. Why, exactly, would all these people have it in for Erdogan? It’s a mystery, of course.
But let’s set aside these fantasies, at long last. The truth is that Erdogan is the principal and lead actor in his own demise. As good a politician he has been up to recent times, these allegations somehow caught him by surprise. He has been the unchallenged leader of Turkey for a decade. No one has dared cross him, and no one has figured out how to beat him. The opposition has been weak, and the resources he has marshaled have enabled him and his party, the Justice and Development Party, AKP, to build a formidable patronage network that encompasses a vast segment of the Turkish press, business groups, lots of NGOs, think tanks, and segments of the bureaucracy. The money that he and his family members have allegedly collected has not merely gone toward self-enrichment, but also toward financing and building a monumental network of individuals and organizations whose only loyalty is to Erdogan.
This web of supporters has, in Erdogan’s name, ginned up all these conspiracy plots, which would challenge the credulity of an eight year old but which nevertheless have fanned the flames of social division. By means of wealthy close businessmen who have benefited from state contracts, Erdogan engineered the purchase of many Turkish media outlets, along with the columnists that come with them. The Erdogan press is Pravda on steroids, attacking and defaming anyone who opposes the “master,” as some have come to call him. They have little choice but to defend Erdogan to the bitter end. Were he to lose power, even to another faction within his own party, they would all lose their privileges. The sad truth is that Turkey has experienced such periods before, when the military and its allies mounted a massive campaign to undermine a coalition government that it considered unsavory. Some of AKP’s current members were in that government in 1996–97 and remember those days with bitterness. Given that AKP and even some of its current opponents attributed the 1997 coup to American and Israeli villains, it is no surprise that today many AKP supporters are willing to buy into that recycled narrative.
But will conspiracy mongering be enough to save Erdogan? At some level, he has already lost and lost big. He had aimed at being the most transformative leader Turkey has known since its founder Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s. He came awfully close. He managed the economy relatively well, delivered a slew of new services in both health and education to citizens of modest means, and invested heavily in infrastructure, from transportation to utilities. Perhaps his greatest achievement still to come: a peace deal with Turkey’s rebellious Kurdish minority. If it comes, it will have been the result of his opening of the door and dramatic reversal of decades of uncompromising and violent Turkish state policy with respect to the Kurds. For the time being, the ceasefire has put a temporary end to the flow of military casualties.
Erdogan had hoped to stick around the Turkish political scene for another ten years, preferably as President of the Republic. Even if his party prevails in the upcoming March 30 municipal elections (that is, if they win a plurality of votes), he has severely damaged his own brand. He is a diminished figure. His hubris and self-confidence, and the lack of a democratic culture in his party, have served him poorly. Internationally, no one can take seriously a leader who propagates preposterous conspiracies targeting Turkey’s most vital allies. He will be remembered not as a transformative leader but as a divisive one—as someone who has called his opponents terrorists because they are leftists or atheists, who deepened the sectarian fracture between majority Sunnis and minority Alevis. In sum, he has already lost his claim to any moral legitimacy.
Still he is not a man without resources. He is quite capable of engendering a crisis of sorts, international or domestic, to distract attention and to rally the troops around him. Accusations of foreign involvement bought him time earlier in May and June 2013 during the massive protests in Istanbul and elsewhere.
It is also possible that, barring a manufactured crisis, serious reversals in the municipal elections—including the possible losses of Istanbul, his home base, and Ankara to the opposition—will provoke a move against him within his own party. Already some in the party are secretly hoping that President Abdullah Gul, also a founding member of AKP, will intervene. There is no question that Erdogan is in a fight for his political life, but the ground is rapidly shifting under him. The crisis is taking a toll on the economic life of the country. No amount of bombastic recriminations against real and imaginary enemies can undo the momentous damage done to his and Turkey’s reputation, the rule of law, and confidence in sound crisis management—all necessary ingredients for a country to move ahead in a globalized world.
Henri J. Barkey
13 March 2014