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Déjà Vu and Paranoia in the Deep State

How long can Turkey's democratically elected leader rule by tyranny-of-the-majority?

At a moment when the revolutionary convulsions of the Middle East are dissolving into chaos and renewed authoritarianism, the one stable democracy in the region -- Turkey -- is twisting its bed sheets in a nightmare of corruption, conspiracy, and state repression. Only a few years ago, Turkey preened as the model for a new age of Middle Eastern enlightenment; now democratic rule seems endangered there, as it is throughout the region.

The events that have consumed Turkish political life began Dec. 17, when police in Istanbul arrested 18 people on corruption charges in a dawn raid. Among those detained were construction magnates who supported the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the sons of three of Erdogan's ministers. Rumor had it that Recep's son, Bilal, would be next. Erdogan responded by firing some of his ministers and shuffling others -- and by getting rid of hundreds of police officers and prosecutors who were responsible for the probe. Additional fraud investigations led to new arrests; those prosecutors were, in turn, dismissed. Erdogan is now seeking to gain control over the judiciary in a brazen violation of Turkey's separation of powers.

The drama has unfolded as a kind of shadow play. Turks are extraordinarily attuned to the supposed machinations of a "deep state." In years past, this expression referred to military and intelligence figures who were said to pull secret strings, and who had overthrown civilian governments on three separate occasions. Over the years, Erdogan has sapped, confronted, and ultimately smashed the power of the military. Now a new cabal is said to be pulling the levers of power: followers of Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamist leader based in the United States who has had a falling-out with Erdogan and whose followers in the police and the judiciary are said to be wreaking their revenge. A column by a scholar at a pro-regime think tank bore the headline, "Turkey's Parallel State Strikes Back," and called for the "Gulen Movement" to be dismantled.   

When I was reporting in Ankara and Istanbul a few years ago, I heard as much about the Gulenists, who were said to be here, there, and everywhere, as I did about the deep state. And as with the military, the shadows reflect very real substance. Gulen's followers, many of them successful professionals, control major media properties and occupy prominent slots in public service. They can be roughly compared to Freemasons, whose habits of secrecy, and whose self-evident success, make them fertile sources of paranoia (or once did). Turkey is now having its anti-Gulenist moment, as the United States once had its fervent, if short-lived, anti-masonry movement.

As journalistic shorthand, the story of Islamist versus Islamist is both entertaining and plausible. Erdogan really had split with Gulen, whose growing power he may have feared. In November, the prime minister had signed legislation which would have forced the closing of almost all of the 3,100 prep schools Gulen operates in Turkey. The raids came the following month. Many Turks, encouraged by the regime, connected the dots. The problem with this neo-deep-state explanation is that the investigations had begun months earlier, and in any case the allegations of political corruption seem all too well-founded. Turkish politics runs on black money, especially from the construction industry. What's more, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the English-language Today's Zaman, says that while Gulenists dominate the upper ranks of the police, they do not control the judiciary. (The Zaman Group, which owns the newspaper, is itself Gulenist, though the English-language paper is generally considered independent.)

Even if the Gulenists are getting their revenge, they are only turning on Erdogan a tool he has been quite effective in wielding in the past. The final nail in the coffin of Turkish military power came in the form of spectacular investigations and trials of the most senior military officers, starting in 2007, for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the state. The so-called Ergenekon trials depended on the "heavy use of fabricated evidence," as Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and scholar now at the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels, puts it. At the time, said Ulgen, the AKP not only remained silent, but "attacked people who were criticizing the legal process and categorized them as putschists." Now, the party has retrospectively turned on the prosecutors: Erdogan's chief of staff wrote in a recent column that the military had been the victim of the same "plot" which was now engulfing the AKP. Gulenist justice, in short, was just fine so long as the victims were the regime's rivals.  

Among the prosecutors that Erdogan has summarily fired is Zekeriya Oz, the deputy prosecutor of Istanbul -- famed as the chief man behind Ergenekon. Stories of Oz's own alleged corruption have begun to circulate in the media. Yet graver than the mass firings and reassignments, whose number is said to have reached 2,000, is Erdogan's attempt to subordinate the judiciary by re-writing the laws governing the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, a body which the government had reformed only three years ago in order to comply with European Union standards. Erdogan wants the body to report to the justice minister, and thus to the government. The E.U. has admonished the Turkish government not to compromise the independence of the investigations.  

In this fast-moving, opaque, and tangled tale, the ultimate narrative is not Erdogan versus Gulen or even cops versus robbers; it's the government against democracy. After 11 years in office, Erdogan has become utterly intolerant of independent voices or of autonomous institutions. "If you don't like him," as Hakan Altinay, a Brookings scholar in Istanbul, puts it, "you must be a traitor, an Alawite, or a 'White Turk'" (a secularist). Turks have lived with this constricting reality for several years now; the rest of the world learned of it last summer when Erdogan sought to crush peaceful protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park, and accused his critics of harboring various bizarre foreign agendas.

Turkey is no police state, but criticizing the government, Erdogan, or the AKP is becoming more dangerous all the time. Last year, the state jailed 40 journalists, making it the world's leading jailer of the press for the second year in a row. Turkish journalists feel that the vise is steadily closing. After we spoke, Yavuz Baydar sent me the following email: "As we communicate, access to the video portal Vimeo is banned in Turkey. More censor assaults to Internet is to be expected, since it is the only free domain left under the circumstances. This horrible déjà vu never ends."

This is the kind of message one used to get from the Middle East before the Arab Spring. It's a vivid reminder that Turkey's democratic transition is both incomplete and subject to serious reversal. Erdogan rules through the kind of tyranny-of-the-majority which populist leaders use to dominate democratic states with weak checks and balances. That rule, in turn, depends on winning electoral majorities, as he has done. The prime minister was able to depict the vast crowds in Gezi Park as urban elitists. He will continue using this rhetoric unless and until the public deals him an electoral blow.

And that may happen. Erdogan's constitutional tenure as prime minister is ending, and he hopes to be elected president later this year. Before then, on March 30, Turkey is holding nationwide municipal elections, which are widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan's leadership. The AKP controls the government of both Ankara and Istanbul. Until Dec. 17, says Sinan Ulgen, "both races were going to be won easily by the AKP." Now both, and especially Ankara, are seen as open. In short, Turks have a chance to decide how much they care about an independent judiciary, a free press, and autonomous institutions. That is how democracies renew themselves.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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