Turkey in Turmoil
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Although the Turkish Parliament is frequently the scene of rowdy discussion, it’s not often that a lawmaker leaves with a bloody nose. But these are not ordinary times in Turkey. On February 15, in a debate on a bill that would increase the government’s authority over the judiciary, an opposition speaker called Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “dictator” who wants to “control the entire system.” In response, members of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) asked the speaker, “Are you drunk?” and rushed the podium. A video of the brawl that circulated on the Internet shows a blurry knot of dark suits, lawmakers in a group tantrum. Republican People’s Party (CHP) representative Ali Ihsan Kokturk emerged with a broken nose. The bill passed.
The fight marked another day in a tumultuous nine months. Last May, a sit-in to save Istanbul’s Gezi Park blossomed into nationwide protests characterized by the stunning brutality of riot police. Five people died, dozens lost eyes to plastic bullets—and for the first time in eleven years, Erdogan’s grip on Turkey seemed to be faltering. Then, in December, an investigation into corruption among government officials went public with an early-morning raid that uncovered shoeboxes full of cash and led to the arrests of prominent businessmen and sons of cabinet ministers. The highlight of the investigation so far has been leaked phone calls allegedly between Erdogan and his son, Bilal, that seemed to catch Erdogan red-handed. “There is your money in the safe,” Bilal appeared to remind his father.
Erdogan went into battle. Just as he had during Gezi, he blamed outside forces for the corruption probe. This time, the accusation focused on a Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan said enlisted his vast network of followers to conspire in a “judicial coup.” Erdogan purged the Turkish police and judiciary of people perceived to be “Gulenists” and fired cabinet ministers, replacing them with officials prized for their loyalty. His party introduced a bill to control the Internet, where information on the investigation found new life, and tightened its grip on the mainstream media, which in turn defended Erdogan’s claims, when they reported the scandal at all. He spoke in no uncertain terms: “History will not forgive those who have become mixed up in this game,” he said in a New Year’s address. “Whichever party you support, this plot targets all of you without exception, the bread on your table, the money in your pocket, the sweat of your brow.” When Bilal was first named in the investigation, Erdogan assured the Turkish public that if his son turned out to be guilty, he would disown him. He insisted the leaked conversations were fakes and, for good measure, an invasion of privacy.
Erdogan is adept at counterattacks, but the past nine months have carried unprecedented threats. “[Erdogan’s] enemies are also resourceful and will not refrain from using what options they have as this war of attrition deepens,” wrote journalist Semih Idiz on the news site Al-Monitor. The leaked phone calls likely represent a fraction of these “resources.” But while this tactic revealed flaws in Erdogan’s leadership with all the subtlety of a fireworks display, it also showed the limitations of his challengers. With local elections scheduled for the end of March, and the coveted Istanbul mayoral seat in the balance, the focus shifted from what was wrong with the AKP to what was wrong with the Turkish opposition.
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When Erdogan helped to establish th AKP in 2001, the country was changing. Religious Turks, long forced to suppress their beliefs in a rigidly secular state, had become upwardly mobile and more visible. Islamist political parties had also been gaining ground, but were regularly banned by the courts or the military. The AKP chose not to define itself along religious lines—Erdogan, especially, rejected the term “Islamist”—but its politicians wore their Muslim identities proudly. This balance between piety and modernity appealed to both religious and secular Turks, and Erdogan became a magnet for votes. He came from a hardscrabble, working-class background and attended an Islamic school, not an elite private one. Instead of denying his past, he broadcast his hardships. Erdogan’s people were Turks with modest backgrounds and poor connections but new ambitions. They felt unrepresented in government, and they looked like, and looked at the world like, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“A lot of people think Anatolian voters are irrational,” H. Akin Unver, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, told me. “I think they are overly rational. They don’t vote for secondary matters. You have to change their everyday lives.” After becoming prime minister in 2003, Erdogan rolled back restrictions on head scarves, built roads and reached out to isolated groups. He understood the trauma Turks felt in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, when whole villages were uprooted. “Erdogan animates that anger,” Unver said.
The AKP also focused on the campaign for accession into the European Union, building a strong economy and challenging a too-powerful military. The party won three consecutive elections but entered a landscape virtually devoid of strong opposition voices. After the 1980 coup, the military had terrorized Turkey in an attempt to eliminate dissent, essentially wiping out the left. A strong Kurdish opposition concentrated itself in the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency against the state that has raged throughout the AKP’s tenure. But the Kurdish opposition was marginalized by its nationalism, and it periodically supported the AKP. Secular Turks, including members of the CHP, got used to second place.