The Paranoid Style in Turkish Politics

The Paranoid Style in Turkish Politics

Erdogan punishes his opponents on dubious conspiracy charges.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put his repressive side on display in June, when he denounced peaceful demonstrators in Istanbul’s Taksim Square as “provocateurs and terrorists” and turned water cannons and rubber bullets on them. Now Mr. Ergodan’s government is venting its paranoid side, sentencing dozens of opponents to lengthy prison terms as part of a conspiracy case unworthy of a democratic state.

The name of the alleged conspiracy is Ergenekon, the mythical birthplace of the Turks and the supposed name of an underground ultranationalist organization bent on destabilizing the country and overthrowing Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist government. The evidence for the existence of Ergenekon is thin, yet Mr. Erdogan has blamed it for nearly every terrorist act carried out on Turkish soil in recent years.

The government has imprisoned hundreds of people it claims are part of the plot, many of them senior military officers but also journalists, lawyers and members of parliament. On Monday, a court handed out more than 250 sentences, ranging from time served (five years in some cases) to life in prison. Among those getting the maximum were Ilker Basbug, formerly the Turkish military’s chief of staff, and Dogu Perincek, head of the left-wing Workers’ Party.

Mr. Erdogan’s supporters point out that, however fantastical Ergenekon might seem, the Turkish military has staged three coups, most recently in 1997 when it overthrew the short-lived Islamist government of Necmettin Erbakan. And there’s no question that the old Turkish political order contained a “deep state” of senior judges, military officers and bureaucrats who were secular in their orientation but frequently autocratic, self-dealing and venal in their methods.

That was one reason why Mr. Erdogan’s rise to power raised hopes that Turkey might become a more mature and representative democracy. Instead, the Prime Minister has used his decade in office to replace one deep state with another. The man who in 1999 spent four months in prison for reciting a militant Islamist poem is returning the favor in spades. The hundreds of verdicts may have been designed to create the impression of a vast conspiracy, but a mass trial is a poor way to give individual defendants their legal due.

Such vindictiveness won’t serve the long-term political interests of Mr. Erdogan and his political party. Until recently many Turkish secularists have supported Mr. Erdogan because he delivered economic prosperity while reducing the political influence of the military. But his brutal approach to the Taksim protesters and now these verdicts have persuaded many of those erstwhile supporters to turn against him. The last thing Turks want is their own Vladimir Putin.

For years, Turkey was a model of a Muslim country that could separate mosque from state. Under Mr. Erdogan, it might have also become a model of an Islamic democracy, hostile neither to religion nor modernity. With Monday’s verdicts, it looks like something more depressingly familiar to the Middle East: a state where the fate of its citizens depends on the whims of the strongman.


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