Last week, after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged to “wipe out” Twitter, state authorities quickly tried to block the social media website. The move, which was immediately -- and rightly -- decried as a sign of Erdogan’s creeping authoritarianism, was an attempt at damage control, an effort to contain the effects of incriminating recordings of telephone conversations between him, his cabinet ministers, family members, and newspaper editors that have started to leak out on the Internet.

For Erdogan, the timing could not be worse. On March 30, Turkey is holding municipal elections, in which the stakes are anything but local. Instead, they are a battle of wills between the prime minister and the Gulenists, followers of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen who have been locked in a showdown with Erdogan, their onetime ally, since last December. The tapes are apparently meant to hurt Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the elections, laying the groundwork for his eventual downfall. But in addition to exposing the prime minister’s abuses of power, the tapes also reveal the Gulenists’ own dirty dealings.

The recordings offer proof positive that Erdogan instructed his minister of justice to order the courts to punish a businessman who had displeased him. The most damning revelations are about Erdogan’s apparent involvement in illicit financial activities, including instructions to his son to remove money from his house. The recordings are apparently the result of years of illegal wiretapping of the prime minister and his entourage. And it is safe to assume that the Gulenists are involved. For one, the earliest tapes date from around 2011, just after Erdogan started to grow uneasy with the group’s reach in the Turkish bureaucracy. In addition, Gulenist cadres within the state apparatus would have had access to the codes and equipment needed to hack his encrypted phone. 

The episode reveals Erdogan to be an unusually unsuspecting autocrat. It has long been an open secret in Turkey that the followers of the Pennsylvania-based Gulen, who are entrenched in the police and the judiciary, eavesdrop on their opponents. When Erdogan and the Gulenists were friendly, that entailed listening in on secularist opponents of the Islamic conservative regime -- something Erdogan never seemed to mind. But when their relationship soured, Erdogan proved slow to catch on to the fact that he could be the Gulenists’ next target. 

And target him they apparently did. Prosecutors who were assigned to the judiciary following Erdogan’s recent mass purges of it uncovered classified files on the wiretapping program in the Istanbul public prosecutor’s office. The files indicated that thousands of people, starting with the prime minister, the ministers of the government, politicians, journalists, academics, and others, were recorded. The size and scale of the program -- and the fact that Gulenists seemingly were able to keep tabs on an elected government for years without consequence -- raises troubling questions about the future of Turkish democracy.

The most immediate conclusion is that the upcoming elections aren’t going to matter; no future Turkish government will be free to govern in accordance with its constituents’ wishes as long as Gulenists keep their hands on the rudder. The fact that the battle between Erdogan and the Gulenists started as a policy disagreement is telling. By 2012, the AKP government had moved to start peace talks with Kurdish insurgents. But the Gulenists had other plans; in February 2012, a prosecutor believed to be a Gulenist sympathizer tried to arrest the chief of Turkey’s national intelligence agency, who had been conducting talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on Erdogan’s behalf. “Next, they would have tried to arrest me,” Erdogan said at the time. 

The fact that Gulenists are prepared to fight tooth and nail against any policy they do not like -- and are unafraid to cast off a former ally and throw Turkey into turmoil in the process -- should give the opposition great cause for worry. But Turkey has neglected to take a principled stance on the matter. Both main opposition parties, the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), have made full and uncritical use of the wiretapped recordings to assail Erdogan and his governing AKP. The social democrats have also vied to become the Gulenists’ next ally.

The social democratic opposition had every reason to be wary of Erdogan and Gulen alike. It has suffered at the hands of the Erdogan-Gulenist alliance; CHP members of parliament and scores of supporters have been imprisoned for years on trumped-up charges and their convictions were secured on the basis of illegal wiretaps. Deniz Baykal, the former leader of the CHP, was forced to resign in 2010, when part of a secretly recorded sex tape of him was posted on the Internet; the authors of the video recording have never been identified, but it was understood to be the work of the “deep state” of the AKP-Gulenist regime. The CHP could have used the Twitter shutdown to point out that curbing the freedom of communication and illegal wiretapping both violate democratic liberties. Instead, the party has tacitly aligned itself with the Gulenists in order to undo their common enemy, Erdogan.

Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, the current leader of the CHP, has exonerated the Gulenists. He recently claimed that his private conversations have also been recorded, but that Erdogan is to blame. He also alleged that the corruption probe against Erdogan’s inner circle, which was launched last December and marked the opening of the all-out war between the Gulenists and Erdogan, had nothing to do with the Gulenists. His remarks helped sustain the fiction (one Gulenists like to promote) that the prosecutors’ sole interest was to uphold the rule of law. In fact, the group’s appetite for power cannot be discounted. Mustafa Sarigül, the CHP’s mayoral candidate in Istanbul, is even more outspoken in his defense of the movement. “I don’t approve of what is being done against the cemaat [“fraternity,” a common term for the Gulenists],” he said recently. “I have always had good relations with the cemaat, and I think that they are being subjected to a very unfair treatment.”

Many have taken CHP officials’ upbeat remarks as a sign that it and the Gulenists have struck an alliance. When asked about such allegations, Baykal was positive. He observed that political battles create opportunities that opposition parties can exploit. Baykal also suggested that there are grounds for a more lasting alliance, arguing that the Gulenists are not the religious radicals he might have once believed them to be. “Those people who you say we are cooperating with,” he said in a press conference on March 15, “have now also come to agree with us that secularism is the foundation of Turkey.” That is a comforting fiction if there ever was one.

The other major opposition party, the rightist MHP, has followed a similar playbook. Its leader, Devlet Bahçeli, recently said that the Twitter ban shows that Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into a “Third World country.” Like CHP, MHP should be very cautious when it comes to Erdogan and the Gulenists. Several members of the party’s executive committee were forced to resign in 2010 (also after secretly recorded sex tapes of them were posted online). That ensured that the MHP -- which appeals to the same conservative base as the AKP -- could not threaten the AKP and the Gulenists in the referendum on constitutional amendments later that year.

For his part, Gulen has endorsed the opposition and urged his sympathizers to vote for either the CHP or MHP in upcoming elections. Both parties should be wary. Even if, thanks to the support of the Gulenists, they beat the AKP in its strongholds in the upcoming election (an outcome that does not seem unlikely in Ankara, where CHP’s candidate is a former MHP politician with broad appeal) and this eventually leads to Erdogan’s position being questioned within his own party, the opposition parties would never get their hands on real power. They would only be a pawn in the continued game between Erdogan and Gulen.

As depressing as this turn of events might be, it is only the latest occasion on which Turkish democrats have failed to stand on their own feet. Turkey’s pro-democratic forces, and liberals in particular, have a history of putting faith in illiberal forces to advance or protect democracy. In the 1990s, as the Islamists’ popularity grew, many in the left looked to the military as a savior. When the military grew too powerful, the influential liberal intelligentsia rallied to the Islamic conservative AKP, whom they expected to stand up for democracy once the generals had been emasculated. To that end, the liberals were willing to turn a blind eye toward many of Erdogan’s abuses of power. With Erdogan now proving autocratic, it seems that the liberals have turned toward a new ally. Even though Gulen says all the right things about democracy and the rule of law, however, the way his followers have used their positions in the bureaucracy to put in place a Big Brother state indicates his true intentions.

As alliances have been struck and dissolved, Turkey’s pro-democrats have tended to focus on one enemy -- whether the generals in the past or Erdogan now. It is telling that Cengiz Çandar, one of Turkey’s leading liberal pundits recently wrote in the daily Radikal that, if the country were a real democracy, Erdogan would have had to resign after the recordings of him first started to leak. The irony that a prime minister of a democratic country had been wiretapped by his own bureaucratic apparatus apparently did not give Çandar pause. Indeed, Turkish democratic intellectuals and pundits demonstrate intellectual laziness when they reduce their country’s democratic crisis to an Erdogan problem. 

Unfortunately, Turkey’s democratic problems are manifold. And there is little reason to hope that the upcoming elections will fix them. If Erdogan wins, he will be emboldened. If the opposition wins, Gulen stands to benefit. Either way, authoritarianism is the winner.

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  • HALIL KARAVELI is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Institute for Security and Development Policy. He is also Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
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