For several months, Turkey has been in the throes of a political war. The latest controversy emerged after a series of wiretapped phone conversations between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his inner circle were exposed systematically on the Internet. These audio files immediately went viral and confirmed to millions of Turks that many of the rumors they’d been hearing about government interference in the media and judiciary were quite real.
In one of the recorded conversations, Mr. Erdogan called Fatih Sarac, a top executive at Haberturk, a popular news channel, to reprimand him for airing the critical views of an opposition leader. Mr. Sarac, a confidant of Mr. Erdogan who suddenly became a top executive at Haberturk in 2012, apologized to the prime minister, telling him: “Yes sir, I will have it cut in just two minutes, sir.” He then made a hasty call to tell his subordinates to take it off the air. In another phone call, Mr. Erdogan questioned Mr. Sarac about a story on Haberturk that criticized the government’s health reforms. The reporters and editor responsible for the story were soon fired.
In yet another wiretapped conversation, Mr. Erdogan was heard asking his justice minister to ensure a heavy sentence against Aydin Dogan, a disobedient media boss who was facing charges of tax evasion. The justice minister responded by saying that the judge in the case could unfortunately not be controlled because he was an Alevi — a religious minority that is often politically at odds with Mr. Erdogan’s Sunni-dominated government.
What’s most shocking is that Mr. Erdogan has openly confirmed the authenticity of many of the conversations. (He did deny one alleged call between him and his son about colossal sums of cash stashed in the latter’s apartment.)
In a press conference, Mr. Erdogan admitted that he called the Haberturk executives to tell them to refrain from publishing “insults” against him. “We have to teach them,” he explained, referring to the media. With regards to his attempted interference in the Dogan case, Mr. Erdogan was again unapologetic, saying: “What could be more natural than that? I had to ask this in the name of my country and nation.”
All this has confirmed that, after a dozen years in power, the system Mr. Erdogan established is a textbook case of illiberal democracy — a system whereby the ruler comes to power through elections but is not bound by the rule of law and shows little respect for civil liberties. It is much more similar to Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia than the liberal democracies of Western Europe that Turkey hopes to emulate.
And yet all this does not seem to be a problem for many Turkish voters. Surprises are always possible, but polls suggest that Mr. Erdogan is still popular and his Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., will not suffer dramatic losses in the local elections on March 30. Although this is a municipal vote, Mr. Erdogan has defined it as a test for his own popularity.
The main reason for Mr. Erdogan’s impressive political endurance in the face of protests and investigations is that most Turkish voters do not care much about his authoritarianism and his party’s corruption as long as the economy is fine. Moreover, most religious conservatives support him reflexively simply because they share his worldview and ideology. Finally, Mr. Erdogan has also been successful in galvanizing his base with a best-defense-is-a-good-offense strategy. He argues that all the wiretapped conversations, and a preceding corruption probe that targeted some of his ministers and his son, are in fact a “coup plot” against his elected government.
“Coup” is an overstatement, but Mr. Erdogan has a point: The very existence of the recordings confirms that there is an effort to embarrass the government. Somebody has been wiretapping the prime minister and his inner circle (along with thousands of others), archiving these audio files and releasing them on the Internet for public consumption.
For Mr. Erdogan, and many others in Turkey, this somebody is also quite obvious: The “parallel state” allegedly created within the police and other key branches of the bureaucracy by the religious followers of Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic preacher based in Pennsylvania.
That is why Mr. Erdogan has spent the past couple of months condemning the “parallel state,” reassigning thousands of policemen and stalling the work of prosecutors who initiated the corruption probe against him. He has also depicted the “parallel state” not as a domestic rival, but a fifth column of “foreign powers” that supposedly want to weaken Turkey. (The pro-Erdogan media refer to these foreign powers as the “interest rate lobby,” the “neo-cons” and “Zionism.”)
He has gone so far as to seek the support of the military, an institution that his government has systematically sidelined over the last decade. Mr. Erdogan’s advisers recently declared that the extensive purges of the military had been executed by the treacherous “parallel state,” and Parliament passed a law which freed dozens of inmates, including the former chief of the general staff, Gen. Ilker Basbug, who were in jail for forming alleged military juntas.
On March 30, Mr. Erdogan hopes to win yet another strong mandate and initiate an extensive purge of his political opponents, which may well turn into a McCarthyist witch-hunt.
He has declared that his war against the “parallel state” is actually Turkey’s “second war of liberation” — after the first one that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk fought 90 years ago against foreign occupying armies. Unfortunately, if too many voters buy the prime minister’s claim that Turkey is in the midst of such a “historic battle,” liberals’ complaints about the lack of rule of law or civil liberties will simply be dismissed as trivia or condemned as unpatriotic.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.