Let me stipulate from the beginning that I have no idea whether the allegations are true that Tayyip Erdoğan conspired with his son Bilal to hide one billion dollars once Turkey’s graft probe was opened in December. Recordings of the two Erdoğans having four separate phone conversations about this topic are on Youtube [ed. note: the billion dollar figure is listed in the introduction to the Youtube clip and has been widely reported, but the taped conversation itself shows the Erdoğans talking about hiding tens of millions and not billions], and for those of you – like me – whose Turkish is not nearly good enough to translate a bunch of garbled conversations in their entirety, a translated transcript can be found here. Erdoğan has not yet denied that the voices on the recordings are his and Bilal’s, but instead has dismissed the taped conversations as having been “montaged,” by which I assume he means that different recordings were spliced together to misrepresent what he said. Sabah and Yeni Şafak are both claiming that the recordings were doctored and that they have their own recordings of the people who edited the Erdoğan phone call. It wouldn’t surprise me if Erdoğan was hiding huge sums of money, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if he is being framed to look much worse than he actually is (although the latter would surprise me more than the former). Neither side here is particularly laudatory or above dirty tricks, and it’s a shame that this is Turkey’s new reality; a corrupt and paranoid government in a death match against a shadowy and corrupt powerful social group.
Of everything that has come out of Turkey in the past two months, this is the most explosive and has actual potential to bring down Erdoğan and the government, since these are charges that are going to be less easy to just dismiss. Assuming for the moment that there is some element of truth to the news and that Erdoğan is sitting on a pile of money that he is trying to hide, three quick takeaways come to mind.
First, one has to begin to question whether the prime minister is capable of thinking clearly. He certainly knew that his phones were tapped, as he expressly warns Bilal on the recording. Furthermore, in December 2012 it came out that Erdoğan’s home office, car, and parliamentary office were bugged, which had Gülenist fingerprints all over it. He knew that he was being listened to and he knew that the Gülenists had dirt on many of his closest allies, and yet he still allegedly called Bilal four times to discuss hiding money on the very day that the heat was the hottest. Leaving all of his other issues aside, is this someone who should be running a country? I have always assumed that the crazier statements that emanate from Erdoğan’s mouth are in the vein of him being crazy like a fox, and that he doesn’t actually believe that higher interest rates will lead to inflation or that there is such thing as an interest rate lobby or that social media is actually the worst menace to society that exists. But maybe he really does believe all of these things, in which case his judgment is fatally flawed and it explains why he would talk about hiding one billion dollars over an unsecured line when he had a very strong hunch that the people who were looking to bring him down were listening in.
Second, and this flows from the first, Erdoğan has reached the point where he is in such a cocoon that he assumes he can just do anything and say anything without real consequences. And really, why wouldn’t he? Throughout Gezi and the corruption scandal up until today, the AKP has not been in any real danger of losing a national election, and Erdoğan himself has been able to dictate what his next moves will be. He says all manner of outrageous things, micromanages municipal building projects, has Turks gassed and beaten in the streets, tries his best to sabotage his own economy by driving away foreign investment, and yet still has a large percentage of his supporters who are willing to believe every explanation and denial, no matter how ridiculous, and to go down with their captain as he sinks the Turkish ship of state. Maybe he isn’t losing his marbles, but just assumes based on recent history that he can do anything he wants and get away with it. He can siphon off a billion dollars and give it out to his family and friends, and talk about how to hide it when he knows his bitter rivals are recording him, and then not even deny that it is him talking on the recordings, and he may still not be dislodged from power. Maybe the joke is on us and not on him. Or maybe it’s not, and he is in such a state of epistemic closure and surrounded by sycophants that he has very badly misjudged the situation, which speaks volumes as well. I don’t know which of these possibilities is the right one, but none of them are good.
Lastly, let’s drop the pretense that Turkey’s political system comes close to anything resembling a consolidated democracy, a mature democracy, or any other phrase the Turkish government wants to use. We are accustomed to seeing dictators steal from public coffers in order to line their own pockets along this order of magnitude, whether it be the Shah’s plane having difficulty taking off from Iran because it was so laden down with gold bars or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s various seaside palaces or Teodorin Obiang buying mansions, private jets, and yachts. When a prime minister is elected three times in a country that is trying to join the EU and is a NATO member and has been widely hailed as the world’s most successful Muslim-majority democracy, you do not expect to see that prime minister – a man who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul and has never held a job outside of working in politics and does not come from family money – amassing a billion dollars on the job. As much as this is an indictment of Erdoğan, it is a far bigger indictment of the Turkish system itself, since a functioning democracy with genuinely transparent institutions would never abide such over the top corruption. No democracy is perfect, and certainly the U.S. has plenty of its own issues, but one can never envision something like this taking place under everyone’s nose for over a decade. As bad as I have been saying that things are in Turkey, it’s even worse than I thought, which makes me extremely sad and disheartened for a country that I adore.