The political situation in Turkey has gone far beyond what even George Orwell could imagine in his wildest fantasies. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his loyal flunkies are disproving the old adage that ‘You can fool some of the people all the time. You can fool all the people some of the time. But you can’t fool all the people all the time.’
The fact that there was serious corruption in this government had long been accepted as common knowledge – part of the price of doing business in Turkey. But as long as delicate political balances were maintained and people were making money there was very little incentive to do anything about it.
Those political balances were upset when the prime minister directly challenged the reclusive Islamic scholar Fetullah Gülen by moving to close private preparatory schools, many of which were owned by Gülen and used as fertile recruiting grounds.
The explosion of corruption revelations that followed shortly thereafter put Erdoğan squarely on his back foot. The evidence supporting the allegations was compelling and clearly followed a long investigation that was somehow kept secret from the prime minister. Not only were two sons of ministers arrested, but the prime minister was forced to fire three of his ministers implicated in the scandal.
The Gülen people denied any hand in the investigation. Needless to say these denials were met with scepticism at best.
Erdoğan’s response was a classic. It was as if he had just read Orwell’s 1984.
First: Vigorously deny the reality that is in front of most people. Do this loudly enough and it sometimes works. Becomes more difficult when some of the alleged conspirators are already in jail.
Second: Do something that always works in xenophobic, conspiracy theory-loving Turkey, blame unnamed foreigners. It helps if you wink and nod and imply that the Americans and Israelis are somehow behind this smear campaign.
Third: Shift the argument. It’s no longer about corruption. It’s about evil forces that want to stop Turkey’s progress or hinder the so-called ‘national will’.
Fourth: And this is the most effective – destroy the evidence. There’s nothing subtle about this move. Just fire hundreds of police officers (who only last summer were praised for their actions against protesters in Istanbul) involved in the investigation. If this is not enough, move to stop all judicial investigations into corruption. Change the laws to limit the power of prosecutors and judges. Fill the ranks with Erdoğan loyalists. Worked in Stalin’s time. Why shouldn’t it work in Erdoğan’s time?
Fifth: Rally the supine and extremely loyalist media. Government outlets are filled with outrage, outrage that anyone would dare impugn the integrity of this government.
Sixth: (Note: it’s important you do this without blushing.) Claim the Moral High Ground. Claim that the police and investigators were part of a ‘parallel’ government whose only goal was to bring down Tayyip Erdoğan. Claim that the government’s actions are simply an effort to assert the rule of law over a ‘secret’ political group (the so-called Gülenists) that had infiltrated state institutions. The trouble with this is that sometimes that Moral High Ground turns out to be nothing more than a pile of sand that keeps shifting. Hard to keep your balance.
This effort to call black white is not limited to corruption scandals. Police in southern Turkey recently intercepted a truck headed to Syria that allegedly was loaded with arms. Rather than admit they were caught red-handed, as it were, the government resorted to its tried and true manoeuvres:
1. Deny the allegations of arms smuggling. The truck was filled with ‘humanitarian’ aid to Turkmens in Syria. Of course.
2. Fire all the police involved in the investigation.
3. Cover the whole thing up by calling it a ‘State secret.’ Don’t bother explaining why ‘humanitarian’ aid is a so-called state secret.
While it is discouraging that so many in Turkey continue to believe this nonsense, it is very encouraging to see many other courageous people with a great deal of integrity resist Erdoğan’s steam-roller. They are valiantly trying to defend the independence of key institutions such as the judiciary are that under assault by Erdoğan’s hard core supporters.
Meanwhile, lurking not very far under the surface, is a reality even the prime minister cannot deny. The economy is in trouble. The Turkish Lira has depreciated to record low levels, bond yields are shooting up, investment opinion has universally turned negative, and the stock market is tanking. It is not clear yet if these trends will develop into the Perfect Economic Storm, but the warnings are out there. It will be interesting to see how the prime minister deals with this reality.