After monopolizing political power and
dominating the public realm for years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan clearly thought nothing could stop him from flying high. Like Icarus
from the Greek myth, however, Erdogan's flight has taken him too close to the
sun. Recent mounting scandal and protest have forced Erdogan into a cabinet
reshuffle that resulted in the resignation of four ministers accused of
corruption. Icarus did not survive his encounter with the sun's rays. It may be
too early to count Erdogan out, but Turkey's internal dynamics and relations
with its allies have been altered permanently.
Erdogan, like Icarus, has been badly burned by
the sin of hubris. In his 12 years of power, he has come to completely dominate
Turkish politics in a way that no other leader since Ataturk's one-party state
days. He achieved this dominance not just because he was a good politician but
also because he faced a hapless opposition unable to challenge him or elaborate
a convincing alternative vision. Ironically, early on in his term one of his
closest advisors, who is now in the cabinet, confided "Turkey's greatest
misfortune was that it lacked a credible opposition."
The current crisis erupted when prosecutors armed with search warrants raided the residences of three serving ministers' sons and the CEO of Halkbank, a government owned bank that had raised eyebrows in the United States and Europe for having been the intermediary in the gold trade with Iran designed to help Tehran avoid sanctions. The prosecutors found $4.5 million dollars and other currencies stashed in shoeboxes as well as numerous safes and money counting machines. The sons and other suspects were accused of money laundering, influence peddling, and bribery among other crimes. The three sons were those of the interior minister, who had been in office less than a year, the economy minister, and the environment and urban planning minister. A fourth minister in charge of relations with the European Union was also implicated.
Erdogan's current challenge is not simply the loss of credibility that the corruption scandal entails. There are few people in Turkey who had not suspected or gotten a whiff of scandal. But for years the Turkish public had an implicit social contract with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leaders: As long as the economic picture improved and more services were made available to the public, the corruption would be overlooked. As extra insurance, Erdogan also made sure that the majority of the press, print and electronic, would be controlled by his allies and he cowed journalists into submission by pressuring their bosses.
So what has changed? In May and June, Istanbul
and other cities were rocked by demonstrations against the government that took
Erdogan and company by surprise. The size and duration of the protests unhinged
the government. It was then that Erdogan made a critical mistake. Instead of
searching for a political solution, he decided not just to confront the
demonstrators but also to delegitimize them and their demands by inventing a
vast external conspiracy as the source of the protests. He and his supporters
in the government, media, and elsewhere unleashed a virulent and non-stop
campaign backed by imaginary information of how "an interest lobby," the
United States, European countries, the German airline Lufthansa, the foreign
media, the Financial Times, Reuters, CNN, and the Economist, to name a few, and
of course the Jews and Israel together cooperated in this endeavor. The
protesters and their allies in civil society and even in some business circles
were therefore nothing more than the pawns of this evil cabal.
There were two problems with this campaign. First,
Erdogan, possibly misled by his advisors, appears to have not understood the depth
of the protests and the extent to which this was about his increasingly
authoritarian tendencies. More importantly, the AKP brass came to believe that
this strategy solidified his electoral base in advance of the March 2014
municipal elections. Second, it damaged Turkey's image abroad and harmed Ankara's most important
international alliances. Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama, who two weeks
before the Gezi protests in May and June had dined with Erdogan in the White
House, has allegedly stopped talking to him. Washington and European capitals
were understandably shocked that they were blamed for attempting to overthrow
Nevertheless, when the most recent scandal emerged Erdogan and the AKP once again unleashed the conspiracy weapon. The pro-AKP press is once again drowning in a sea of conspiracy; the usual suspects have been fingered. This time there is a bit more flourish: The AKP openly suspected the hand of the movement of the religious conservative Fethullah Gulen, once an erstwhile ally and fellow traveler who increasingly became fearful of Erdogan's accumulation of power. There is something to be said about the enmity of the opaque Gulen movement and the AKP. Gulen who has been residing in rural Pennsylvania since the late 1990s when he sought refuge from the Turkish military, has built a vast network of business associations, media properties, and schools. His adepts are said to populate many state institutions, including the police and judiciary. The alliance collapsed with the defeat of the military as both Gulen and Erdogan began to perceive each other as having accumulated too much power. The corruption inquiry is seen as another skirmish in the battle between the two.
The flourish also came with manufactured stories
about the U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone and his embassy personnel. Embassy
and State Department denials notwithstanding, Erdogan threatened Riccardone
with expulsion. One day four pro-AKP government news sites appeared with almost
identical story lines if not headlines directly or indirectly calling for the
expulsion of the U.S. ambassador. Now they have decided on a
common narrative -- that this is a coup attempt organized by the United
States, Israel, and the Gulen movement.
Erdogan's initial reaction to lock down the
hatches by dismissing police chiefs and changing reporting regulations to
prevent further investigations into his party and even his own family has
struck a raw nerve. The public this time seems far more skeptical of the
conspiracy theories. For one thing the images of the $4.5
million, money counting machines, and many safes -- almost straight
out of a Hollywood movie -- are difficult to erase. Furthermore, the
explanations have stretched credulity: They range from the foreign conspirators
planting the money and equipment to monies collected to build a school
somewhere in Turkey or to be donated to a Balkan university -- take your pick.
Uncharacteristically, Erdogan this time yielded under pressure and reshuffled his cabinet. While he may recover, he is a much more diminished person at home and internationally. He will suffer losses in the municipal elections, but he has time to recover even if not completely before the presidential and general elections. Still, the Gezi protests have had a cumulative impact on his predicament. At home it is becoming more and more difficult for the public to buy into the fantastical conspiracy theories that target Turkey and Erdogan. Business confidence, a mainstay of the AKP's rule, has been shaken to the core as its currency has plunged to new lows.
Will Erdogan throw all caution to the wind in pursuit of short-term benefits and adopt a policy of confrontation with his real and imaginary enemies? This will further divide Turkey and, especially if the United States becomes a target, the costs, economic and political, in the long run could become prohibitive. The U.S.-Turkish relationship has been severely damaged as confidence in an ally leader who accuses Washington for fomenting a coup against him has been zeroed. The United States will continue working with Turkey; it has no other choice as everyday Turkish and U.S. officials engage in hundreds if not thousands of transactions. They range from exchanges within the NATO alliance to Afghanistan to trade and other economic relations to conversations over Syria and the rest of the Middle East. These are not about to disappear -- but Erdogan's hubris has already done real harm to a once close partnership.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.
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