ISTANBUL – “Turkish democracy is at a turning point,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced after winning a crucial vote in a referendum to change Turkey’s constitution. “We are sitting an important exam.”
Erdoğan is right, but it is he who must pass the test. If the plebiscite victory emboldens him and his allies to step up their tactics of judicial dirty tricks and media manipulation – used to great effect in recent years – the prospects for Turkey are bleak. The country will descend deeper into authoritarianism, political divisions will become irreconcilable, and yet another political rupture may become inevitable.
Too few people in Europe and the United States comprehend the extent to which Erdoğan’s government has undermined the rule of law and basic freedoms – all in the name of “deepening Turkish democracy.” Government prosecutors have mounted a series of sham trials, charging hundreds of military officers, academics, and journalists with membership in an armed terrorist organization aiming to topple the Erdoğan government. In a separate but related prosecution, they used fabricated evidence to accuse nearly 200 active and retired military officers of planning a coup in 2003, during the early days of Erdoğan’s first government.
Erdoğan and his ministers have been cheerleaders for these prosecutions. Their supporters in the media have spewed a stream of disinformation and leaked wiretaps to discredit and embarrass the accused. Meanwhile, the country’s largest independent media group has been brought to heel by huge, politically motivated tax fines.
Erdoğan’s strategy has been to whip up frenzy around these cases to solidify his traditional, religious/conservative base, but also to gain the backing of domestic liberals. The prosecutions have allowed him to position himself as the protector of Turkish democracy against the coup plotters allegedly still running rampant among the military and secularists.
The prosecutions entail indictments that are thousands of pages long and include annexes that take up several bookshelves. This, along with media disinformation, has made it difficult for outsiders to penetrate the cases and separate fact from fiction. But as soon as we engage with the details of the prosecutions, a shocking picture emerges: some of the key evidence in the cases is clearly planted, while much of the rest remains circumstantial at best.
For example, the alleged 2003 coup plot was supposedly discovered when CDs containing detailed preparations (including assassination teams and plans to bomb two mosques) were delivered to a virulently anti-military newspaper. Of the hundreds of senior officers serving at the time, none has acknowledged any knowledge of these plans.
Indeed, it is patently clear that people intent on framing military officers authored the documents in question many years later, in 2008 at the earliest. In addition to major internal contradictions and inconsistencies, the coup plot documents are full of references to entities that did not even exist in 2003, as well as to developments that took place later.
The prosecutors have shown little interest in these discrepancies, doing their best to send the alleged conspirators to jail (and keep them there) even before the trial starts. Erdoğan has fanned the flames by claiming that he was aware of such coup plans at the time, but that he disregarded them.
A dramatic book that was published just before the referendum on the constitution sheds light on who is behind these machinations. It claims that followers of Fethullah Gulen – the influential US-based spiritual leader – have effectively wrested control of the national police and large parts of the judiciary.
The Gulen movement is independent from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), but the two have long been closely allied, and now it has become a state within a state, employing extra-legal means, including illegal wiretaps and fabricated evidence, to go after perceived opponents.
Accusations against the Gulen movement are not new in Turkey, but what made the book a bombshell is that its author is a distinguished police chief, well known for his courage and incorruptibility – as well as his closeness to the Gulenists and to Erdoğan’s government. No friend of the army, he pursued rogue elements within the military in a famous investigation several years ago.
So he cannot be accused of harboring ultra-secularist or ultra-nationalist sympathies. This, along with his inside knowledge of the workings of the police and the prosecutorial branch, give his revelations a credibility that earlier accounts had lacked.
Tellingly, the police chief went to his governmental superiors prior to the book’s publication, appealing personally to a minister. But the government refused to investigate and did nothing with the information.
The most benign explanation for this behavior is that it is a consequence of the AKP’s own long history of persecution by the military and secular old guard. The AKP has been under constant threat of a ban through much of its existence, and Erdoğan was jailed for reciting a poem with religious imagery. Perhaps the dirty tricks are largely defensive, meant to ensure that the old guard never threatens the AKP’s existence again.
If so, the referendum’s outcome should convince Erdoğan that the balance of power in the country has changed for good, and that the days of strong-arm tactics by the secular establishment are gone forever. Here is a chance for Erdoğan and his allies to back off from their gross violations of the rule of law and build the democracy that they so fervently claim as their goal.
An important first step would be to restore confidence in the integrity and independence of the judiciary and law enforcement. The amended constitution expands the constitutional court and the supreme council of judges and prosecutors. The exam that the government must sit is to use its new powers to appoint widely-respected, impartial members – rather than divisive satraps – to these bodies.